From “Tales of Hyperborea” By Sydney C Light
THE SHINING HANDS
“This way,” Zhen darted ahead of Ling, opening a padlock with a key attached to a stretchy, plastic coil necklace. She pulled back her hood, revealing a cartoonish mop of pink and black hair surrounding a sullen, childlike face. Zhen’s mouth was frozen downward as if she had never known how to smile. “It’s just down here,” she said glancing back. Ling followed her along an industrial cement walkway lit with droning fluorescent bulbs. It smelled of disinfectant poured over sewage. Zhen unlocked a battered blue door and they entered a dark one-room apartment that she shared with her husband, two children, and father. “I sent my kids and husband to ma ma’s,” she said, referring to her husband’s mother, “so no distraction.”
“Over here,” Zhen guided her to a low cot in a corner. As Ling’s eyes adjusted to the dim light, she made out what appeared to be a living, human skeleton in the half-light. The man’s chest moved up and down in shallow, difficult breaths. Ling observed for several moments without speaking.
“This is my father,” Zhen said. “No one else will help us. People have spoken about what you can do. The Chu family in Old Town told us about —”
“Is there something I can sit on?” Ling cut her off, not wanting any talk about the resurrection of the Chu’s little boy. The woman’s anguished face beseeched Ling, not for explanation, but for hope. Ling softened, “I’ll need to sit close.” A small, three-legged stool was fetched. Ling took off her jacket, laying it to the side and pulled the stool close to the cot.
“Where is the wound?” Ling asked, rolling back her sleeves. Zhen tapped her own chest with her fingertips.
With the same sure, expedient hands that made pearl necklaces ten hours a day, Ling neatly folded the top of the blanket down to reveal a festering gash across the top of the man’s torso. The stench of rotting flesh met her nostrils, but she did not recoil. He stared up at her, sunken eyes full of fear.
Moonlight shone through the open window, resting in a line along his neck like a silvery noose, but nothing could choke the remorse that filled the room. He could no longer work for his family. He had become a liability.
“How did this happen?” Ling asked.
“Haiwan Bridge,” the man rasped, “cable snapped.” The city was building the longest bridge in the world over water. It was Qingdoa’s most ambitious building project ever. Thousands had found employment. Ling often heard government officials proclaiming over loudspeakers that this project was an example of the greatness of Chinese workers, and the ingenuity of the country’s engineers.
“Has the company doctor seen you?” Ling asked.
“They gave him pain pills and sent him home,” Zhen said.
“They said don’t come back unless okay,” the man wheezed, laboring to get the words out. He wasn’t okay. They all knew that. In addition to the gash and three broken ribs, he had fallen 100 feet after the cable hit him, crushing his hip. His lungs were filled with mucus, and he could not eat. He needed someone with him 24 hours a day, but everyone in the household had to work.
“He was just a day worker,” Zhen said. “He had no contract. The pills are all gone, they won’t give us more.”
Ling took his hand and pulled it close. His skin was the texture of a dried animal pelt, the veins like rivers in a drought. His thin fingers curled around her hand. The nails were yellowed and long. The man’s hand reminded Ling of her mother’s lotus feet, hanging onto the body, broken and useless. Tears welled up in his rheumy eyes. “Mhgòi—kill me,” he sobbed, but even his dry tears could not flow.
“I can’t do that,” Ling said.
“I am going to die anyway,” he said with the last bit of purpose left inside of him. “My family,” he glanced at his daughter, “are too afraid to do it.”
He turned onto his side with great effort and stared directly into Ling’s eyes. “I beg you, Sweet Mother, Quan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, daughter of Xi Wangmu—set me free.” His eyes brightened, like pebbles in a stream catching bits of light through leaves. He is feverish, and thinks I am the Goddess, she thought.
The flashes of light began again, and a simultaneous buzzing drown out all other sound. Ling’s head throbbed. Not now! I have to figure out what to do. The Shifu had called this a ‘gift’ but it seemed more like a curse. She had no control over any of it; the abilities came and went like whims. She wasn’t even sure how she had pulled the Chu’s son back from death. It had all come to her in the moment. I am like a bird that doesn’t remember how to fly. Ling clamped her eyes shut. The heavy burden of another’s life was in her hands, and she had no idea what to do.
When she opened her eyes, she had entered the in-between place again. Untethered by time and space, The Watchers came here to speak to one another. Zhen and her father were frozen in their positions, a still life tableau of wretchedness. The dismal apartment in Qingdoa receded, until it was nothing more than a blue dot. All around Ling was empty twilight, except for a vast, gossamer membrane that spread across all of space, dividing one nothingness from another. Made up of millions of interlocking dodecahedrons, each translucent segment was no bigger than her hand. Each was in turn etched with a pattern of overlaid circles. Caught between worlds again, Ling did not panic this time. She could only wait and watch.
Slowly, a scene materialized on the other side of the divide. An older woman appeared who looked to be from another time. The woman’s pale skin glowed in the flickering light of the cooking fire. She wore a long, linen robe, cinched in the middle with a woven belt, and stood stirring a large, steaming metal pot with both hands on a ladle. The small room had earthen walls, and Ling could see part of a thatched ceiling above. She watched transfixed as the pale woman turned away from her task, wiping her hands on her apron. She looked around the room expectantly as if hearing something then turned and looked directly at Ling. Her large, slate-colored eyes were unveering. “I can’t quite hear you,” she said, “but I know you’re there.”
“Who are you?” Ling asked, half out loud.
“You want to know what’s happening?” The woman said. “That’s understandable.”
“Yes,” whispered Ling.
“It’s a spiral—a loop,” said the pale woman, making a circular gesture with one hand in the air, her voice only intermittently audible.
“What is?” Ling said.
“— time — structure — events the same, circumstance — different —what is circular is eternal. Do you understand?” The woman’s words came through in bursts, like a radio with bad reception. Ling struggled to make out her meaning. The language was unfamiliar but somehow understandable.
“I can’t quite hear what —”
“Not with your ears,” the woman said, leaning forward. “Listen with this.” She tapped between her eyebrows. “Do you remember your vows?”
“No,” Ling said. “What vows?”
“Sworn duty to return? Give aid and comfort? The man wants release, help him.” The woman’s face rippled as if it was on the surface of water.
“He wants me to end his life,” Ling said. I don’t know how—or even if I should.”
“There is no ‘should’ with suffering. You do what you must and you do it quickly.”
“Use the shining hands,” the woman said as her face began to disappear beneath a watery substance. “You know how, Ling! Try to remember. It’s all in your —” The woman and her earthen room were suddenly gone.
The old man coughed violently and Ling was hurled back into the apartment in Qingdao, where no time had passed. Sworn duty, vows. What did she mean? Ling squeezed the man’s hand. “What is your name?” She said, searching his face.
“Are you sure this is what you want?”
“Yes.” His cracked lips curved into a smile.
“In the name of the Goddess Quan Yin,” the words came haltingly as if someone else were speaking through her, “and in the name of the Great Western Mother Xi Wangmu. Please help Yao Bing— please goddess, I ask you to take Yao Bing home.”
Ling’s heart pounded. The details of the room became hazy around her, but her vision suddenly sharpened. She could now see beneath the surface of Yao Bing’s skin, all the way into his internal tissue and organs. His blood pulsed like sludge through a narrow pipe, and his lungs were half flooded. A hazy bluish spiral was coiled all around his swollen heart, resembling a python curling about its prey. She knew Yao Bing could linger like this for days or even a week, but it would be a slow death and the pain would become unbearable.
Focus, focus, tune out everything. Ling’s own hands had gone transparent. She could see gelatinous buttons of cartilage in her fingers, and bolts of light moving through her neural network. In moments, her hands were no longer simply transparent, they had become pure light. The shining hands! As if directing a paint brush, Ling gently brushed her light fingers across Yao Bing’s face. He stared at her expectantly, blinking once. When she was sure he would not feel any pain, she plunged the gossamer hands inside his stomach. He twitched once, but lay still.
Use your mind to steer your life, the Shifu had once told her.You must learn to direct your thoughts. At first, the spectral fingers wobbled, breaking up like glimmering metallic shards as she dragged them through his body into his chest. If even a shred of doubt entered her mind, the hands disintegrated and could not do their work. I can do this, she told herself. I have done this before.
Ling managed to steady her fingers and cup the man’s beating heart with her phosphorescent hands. It felt as if a huge moth beat its wings wildly against the inside of her palms. “Let go, Yao Bing,” she whispered, “your work in this body is done. You are free.” Yao Bing groaned. Ling’s courage wavered. She bowed her head, please let me do this right. But she wasn’t even sure to whom she prayed.
“Yao Bing,” she said, “your earthly heart contains your highest essence, the part of you that is immortal. You are honored, loved, never forgotten. You will return again. Let go, be joyful!” Suddenly his heart palpitated violently, as if struggling to escape her hands. It took every ounce of her will to hold on. All at once, the heart was still.
The bluish, glowing snake coiled around his heart expanded for a moment and slipped off the motionless organ, hovering just above. Ling watched in astonishment as the coil pulsed, just as his physical heart had done. It still has life, she marveled, but had become some sort of rarified form of existence, beyond birth and death.
Ling was engulfed by a strange joy. The blue swirl was imprinted with an intricate pattern, much like the membrane between worlds she had seen, but infinitely smaller, in exquisite detail. Woven into the living blue light was everything Yao Bing had ever seen, experienced, said or thought. Nothing was arbitrary, bad or good; all had been necessary and perfect. Even his death, which had seemed like a terrible random accident, was perfect. For all of time, he would not be forgotten, because his blue coil would add itself to the greater story. Nothing was ever lost.
Ling had been dragged here, filled with dread, by a woman from the factory she barely knew. The apartment, the circumstance, all of it had seemed like a nightmare. Now, it was the most perfect thing she had ever witnessed. After a moments hovering in Yao’s body, the blue spiral bolted out like lightning and darted all around the room at dizzying speed. It whizzed past her head, and hit the wall like a giddy sparrow. At last, it extended into a tiny comet and blasted through the open slats of the vent on the ceiling. A residual throbbing luminance lingered in the room, bathing even the chairs and ragged curtains in a dim, glowing halo.
Ling closed Yao’s eyes, and placed his hands atop one another on his heart. His body looked like a discarded cicada husk, it was just a shell really. She wondered if she would recognize him if she ever saw him again in another form.
Yao Bing’s daughter rushed over sobbing and embraced her father’s body. Ling quietly picked up her jacket and slipped out the door.