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The River Stories of a Ghost

I had always thought that there were no ghosts in my family, until I saw her face looking back at me in a black and white family portrait. I could identify everyone in the frame— Grandma and all three of her younger sisters, my great-grandmother, and great-grandfather—but not the teenage girl on the far right, whose face was blanched by unfortunate lighting.

“This is her,” Grandma said in Sichuan dialect. “She is my oldest sister, Yu Ying.”

She didn’t have the same round face as Grandma and her other sisters; her face was long and her pointy chin joined an angular jawline. Though her other facial features were slightly blurred, her upper lip was unmistakably asymmetrical. Grandma told me that she’d been born with a cleft palate that formed a gap from her upper lip to her nostrils, which rural doctors, who were always inexperienced and underpaid, did a particularly poor job at sealing. In public, she was a quiet girl. When she did talk, her speech was difficult to understand, escaping through her mouth as if she didn’t have full control of her breath. I examined the picture. She seemed like a stranger—to me and to those in the frame with her.


Grandma told me that in elementary school, the boys who sat in the adjacent desks would intentionally bump their elbows into her shoulders as they sat down.

“Scarface,” they’d call her. She never said anything back, fearful that they’d begin teasing her about the way she talked.

At home, my great grandmother, whose feet were small from being bound and whose marriage had been arranged, upheld a traditional attitude towards her eldest daughter’s facial disfiguration. While she sent her other girls off to the local high school, she believed that there was little use in continuing to educate Yu Ying, who in her eyes only attracted negative attention from their neighbors, so she told her that “nothing is impossible for a girl with a nice-looking face” and the message was clear to Yu Ying, who didn’t protest when her mother sent her off to make a living for herself.

She found work in Pu Jiang grinding stones. It was a mindless job that required no skill and whose pay reflected this fact; nonetheless, she was only a sixteen-year-old girl with a cleft palate, and it was a job. There, in the sparsely inhabited countryside, she rolled her overalls up her knees and waded in and out of the river, emptying bamboo baskets heavy with large, round stones each time she returned to the shore. When the pile had gotten high enough, she took a hammer to each rock and crushed it into gravel, one by one, until her wrists were sore.

Some stones cracked under the impact of a single strike. Others took more time and more strength to break open. It was, as Grandma put it, a man’s job.

Each day, she and the other workers lined up with bags of crushed river stones slung over their shoulders, waiting for their work to be weighed by a foreman. For every 3,000 kilograms, they received two yuan, just enough for three meals a day with a little left over.

When she returned from Pu Jiang, she did not look like her other sisters. Her hands were cut and calloused, her hair was ungroomed, and her work attire looked peculiar next to their neat school uniforms. She’d reach her hands into her bag and unwrap ​mantou, which she’d bought with the money she’d made, treats that had lost their moisture after being carried for so long.

Still, Grandma recalled that they tasted like heaven in comparison to the porridge and wild herbs they could only afford to eat at home. Grandma was always moved by her sister’s generosity, but the gratitude she expressed to her never exceeded one “Thank you.”

What Grandma remembered looking forward to most about Yu Ying’s visits were the stories she’d tell her and her sisters. She always told them from the edge of a bed in the small room they shared. The other girls, sitting beside her or lying on their backs on the other bed, listened to Yu Ying speak of the men at Pu Jiang who had become her suitors. One of them had the largest water canteen and was so tall and strong that he could carry a thousand kilograms of rocks from the river each day. Another was the most gifted mahjong player in the province and would buy her peanut candies with the money he won. Even the quarry owner’s son, who would someday be rich after his father bequeathed all the quarries in the region to him, pursued her relentlessly. According to Yu Ying, they were all flawless and handsome, comparable to Sun Daolin, a movie star that all Chinese girls adored.

“How did these men tell you they loved you?” Grandma would ask.

Yu Ying said they promised to build her a river house one day, where she could fish off of her back deck, or a stone mansion atop the tall mountains overlooking the quarries. Or, if she preferred, they’d buy her a city apartment where she could spend her time shopping for new clothes and eating mung bean cakes with the other housewives.

When they asked her why such exceptional men would fancy a poor girl with a scar on her lip, Yu Ying responded that she’d met the river god ​He Bo, who owned all of the beauty of the world, and she’d made a sacrifice in exchange for his blessing. They asked her what she could have sacrificed in return for such a priceless gift, and if she could introduce He Bo to them, but she maintained that her sacrifice and his location were secrets that she could not disclose.

Sitting in their makeshift beds, Yu Ying’s younger sisters were mesmerized and hopeful that they too would find men somewhere who would love them. Each time Yu Ying returned to Pu Jiang to work, they believed that they might never see her again, that she’d marry one of these men and live a charmed life, never to return home.

However, she continued to come home. One of these days, Yu Ying’s mother had plans for her, forcing her to fix her hair and put on a ​qipao before bringing her to the Hu family house down the street, a windowless home made of dirt and grey brick. There, Yu Ying stood face-to-face with a short man who was neither ugly nor handsome, devoid of any remarkable physical characteristics. He was not strong or talented or rich. Grandma had described him to me as homely, yet Yu Ying was to marry the man and live with him at the start of next month.

Yu Ying’s mother told her that she’d been very lucky to find a man who would take her to be his wife and that she should be thankful for the opportunity, so Yu Ying did not object when the man’s family decided to move to the countryside and take her with them. As her visits became less frequent and eventually non-existent, so did the stories she told her sisters about her suitors, river gods, and love.

At their farm in the Sichuan countryside, Yu Ying’s ostracization continued. Her husband’s family was as big as her own, and his siblings made no attempt to welcome her into their household. They’d leave her to do a disproportionate share of the tilling, planting, and harvesting required on the farm. She spent most of her day in the fields, and her husband often hit her when she returned to the house, sometimes because she’d forgotten to do one of her chores, and other times simply because he was in the mood to do so. He was a short-tempered man.

Grandma told me that she couldn’t give me many more details of her sister’s life after this point. She remembers hearing from her when her husband broke his leg in a car accident and she needed help to pay his medical bills. Later, she learned of the birth of her sister’s first child, and then the death of her husband. The space in between those events is unclear to her. Grandma couldn’t remember the last time they talked. She told me that she thinks of the girl in Yu Ying’s stories more than she thinks of the distant woman who lives in the Sichuan countryside.


At the restaurant, my mom books the private room with the largest table for our special reunion. Still, when we get there, we have to squeeze extra chairs in between the ones already at the table and press our elbows to our torsos when we pick up our bowls and eat. There is a flurry of hands reaching towards dishes on the turntable. One of my cousins, with his eyes set on the shi zi tou ​meatballs, rotates the table without seeing that an uncle hasn’t finished getting his own food, and spins it back when he realizes what he’s done.

The four sisters sit on the opposite side of the table and speak amongst each other. The clicking of utensils and the sub-conversations in between them and me make it impossible to hear what they’re talking about. It’s obvious, though, that my grandma and two younger great aunts have trouble making conversation with their oldest sister. They try their best to include her in their discussion, as a group of friends might try to include a student who is sitting alone in a cafeteria.

I try not to stare at my great aunt’s face for too long. The scar above her lip is as noticeable as in the family portrait my grandma showed me, but now her spine is as bowed as her sisters’. She is the only one of the four who hasn’t tried to hide the age with black hair dye, so her naturally wavy hair is a uniform white. It’s difficult for me to imagine a woman of her frame on the riverbank hammering away at stones for hours at a time, or in the fields of a Sichuan farm.

Her clothing consists of shades of dark green and looks especially monotone next to the outfits of her sisters, which are subtly embellished with jewelry and the occasional brand name. It’s clear that their lifestyles have diverged; she wears evidence of the sun on the skin on her face, which looks thin and wraps tightly around her cheekbones.

I don’t see her open her mouth to speak often. She sits and listens to her sisters, adding an occasional comment, apparently no longer the storyteller she’d once been.

My younger cousin leans back in his chair and falls over, laughing.

His mother picks him and his chair up and scolds him quietly in Sichuanese, “Ben! Sit upright, no elbows on the table, and be respectful. You have elders here.”

To me, my great aunt doesn’t look like a woman blessed by the river god. I feel the urge to cross the room and ask her questions about her life, but she seems so far away, and I’m not sure what I would ask in the first place. I am distant enough on our family’s pedigree that she likely isn’t aware that I exist at all. So, I continue shoving in mouthfuls of tofu and ​dan dan noodles, sneaking occasional glances up at her, imagining my own stories about the woman.

I fill in the gaps in Grandma’s version of her sister’s life with more obstacles she’s had to overcome and made-up worlds which she might have wished she’d lived in. I picture the reality of it all—the tending to sick cattle, the boots encased by hardened mud, the smell of the earth, the summers, the winters, the mosquito bites which always accompany the humidity, the collapse at the end of a day of work. I picture the life which she dreamed of when she was a young girl, too—a life without her scar, a life without her lisp, a life with men who loved her and whom she loved, and most of all a life whose path was determined by her own choices. I picture her at her house on the river, scrubbing plates on the edge of her deck, waiting for her husband to bring home gifts of fish. He would be someone loving, not cruel, and would hold her and listen earnestly as she spoke about her day, her desires, and anything else she wished to say.

She turns in my direction, and I can’t tell if our gazes meet for a moment or if she is just looking behind me at our server. While it’s clear to me now that the woman sitting across the table is no less tangible than my relatives sitting next to her, she is at the same time a ghost, the remains of a hopeful young girl who took breaths in worlds composed of suitors, river gods, and love. As much as I would like to know her as I know my other relatives, I feel that at this point, she won’t be able to tell me her story. Out of respect, I don’t ask. As I watch the ​mantou ​between my chopsticks leave a trail of steam from the turntable to my plate, I wonder how much she remembers, and if the river god’s blessing still lingers.


Justin Li

Justin Li was born in New Jersey and has lived there his entire life. His work has been recognized by Scholastics Art and Writing, YoungArts, and The Justin Society at his high school. He also is an editor and frequent contributor to The Pingry Record, his school's newspaper, and Calliope, his school’s literary magazine. As a rising sophomore, he attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.


Justin Li was born in New Jersey and has lived there his entire life. His work has been recognized by Scholastics Art and Writing, YoungArts, and The Justin Society at his high school. He also is an editor and frequent contributor to The Pingry Record, his school's newspaper, and Calliope, his school’s literary magazine. As a rising sophomore, he attended the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio.