It’s the 49th day of the third year and time to dig up Mr. Choi. At the altar, beneath the orange blossom, Mrs. Choi lights the sun and the moon, and offers prayers to the ancestors. Next she must bring a bowl of water blessed by the shaman, and prepare to strip the remains of her husband’s flesh, and wash his bones.
The sun is rising. Green-clotted fields steam with heat and the last of the monsoon rains. Mrs. Choi must make sure Mr. Choi is sealed in his permanent tomb by midnight, facing exactly south-south-west, where the flame tree blazes, and the iron mountains soar. For this is the most spiritual of locations, in harmony with the land and sky, an honorable site for one such as Mr. Choi, born in the Year of the Buffalo.
“It is time, Hanh,” she murmurs to her son. “Come. It is time to visit your father.”
The boy dutifully gets up from his mat. He is still small for his age though has gained a little weight lately. Almost a man now, he too must revere his ancestors.
Together they dig until they come to the temporary bamboo crate, buried deep, parallel to their hut where it is coolest. They heave and lift it out and raise the lid, staggering at the stench, and preparing themselves for what they must look upon. This is a ritual Mrs. Choi has performed many times for family members, and she has been careful to bring camphor for the odor, a stiff brush for the gristle, and her very sharpest bone-cleaning knife. Later, she will call back the shaman to perform the burial rites in accordance with the will of Yama, the god of death and justice. Mrs. Choi isn’t in the least bit afraid to see her husband settling in to his decomposition; it is nature’s way after all.
Mr. Choi is, indeed, putrefying as expected, undone at every seam, eyes runny as oysters. Mrs. Choi looks him up and down and sniffs the camphor. He had been a good looking man in life, with a full head of hair. She has much work to do.
“We should leave him longer, Ma,” Hahn holds the camphor cloth to his nose, and Mrs. Choi considers her rotting husband. Liquefied flesh has slipped blue-black from Mr. Choi’s lower face, exposing his jawbone. She sighs and notes the missing tooth at the front, remembering how he had lost it climbing to gather coconuts for their wedding feast, a young man then, a little arrogant perhaps, but wanting to impress her. He had fallen and knocked out that tooth, but it didn’t stop him smiling; such a charismatic man. Everybody said so.
“No, Hahn,” she speaks with certainty to her son. “It is the right time. The shaman has spoken.”
And so they reach into the coffin to lift him out. But, exactly at that point, Mr. Choi does a peculiar thing. He wakes up. Perhaps it was their voices that had interrupted his death, or the sudden jolt of the crate, or even his irrepressible zest for life. But here, now sitting up, is Mr Choi, arms lifted and reaching for his wife.
“Oh!” Mrs. Choi’s hands fly to her mouth. “Oh, my word!”
“He’s cursed!” shrieks Hanh. “Oh, mama. He’s a wraith. Get away from him.”
Mrs. Choi steps back as Mr. Choi plucks at her skirt.
“Ma, he’s getting out!”
“His spirit hasn’t left his body,” gasps Mrs. Choi. “Go back to the house, Hahn and bring frankincense. Quickly now. We must help him.”
By now Mr. Choi is gripping her ankles with skeletal fingers, his jaw moving as he tries to speak.
“What are you trying to tell me, Mr. Choi?” Mrs. Choi struggles, staggers and inadvertently kicks him in the skull and there is a groan.
“Forgive me, Mr. Choi.” Fear swells in her stomach.
He abruptly releases her ankles, and her fear subsides.
“Shut the lid, Ma!” Hahn is back with frankincense and an axe. “‘Cut off his head, shut the lid and tell nobody.”
“I can’t do that!” Mrs. Choi knows that is blasphemy. “His spirit will wander, the ancestors will shun him, he will walk alone. We cannot do that. His soul will be tortured for all time.”
“It cannot be helped.” Hahn stands beside her, his eyes large and bright. “He cannot come back.”
By now Mr. Choi has a decaying leg over the edge of the coffin and is trying to use what remains of muscle on his thigh to lever himself over the side.
Hahn comes forward with the axe but Mrs. Choi holds him back and hurls out frankincense.
“Perhaps he should come back home,” she whispers. She has heard the family talk of her grief, how she misses him, his charisma, his good looks. She has said nothing, but dutifully worn mourning dress, accepted widowhood. Could she now turn a blind eye to his moldering flesh, his slimy internal organs, his rancid smell?
On reflection, Mrs. Choi recalls that Mr. Choi had not been a hygienic man in latter years; a refusal to change his dirty clothes, or wash his hands after using the toilet. She was quite used to a bad-smelling husband.
Mr. Choi has now levered himself out of his crate and is sliding with a soft plop onto the soil. He hauls himself along, like a withered eel inching towards the water. The hinge of his jaw is moving, strings of dirty spittle stretching like melting cheese. But the only sound is the click of jawbone, the gargle of sludge that was once his throat and voice box.
At least he cannot talk so much, thinks Mrs. Choi, for Mr. Choi had been a great talker, a big personality, the attention always upon him. Mrs. Choi had been very proud of that and happy to be in the background, her personality being so modest by comparison, her ideas so silly. Perhaps, with hindsight, she could have done with him talking a little less. Perhaps, even, considerably less.
It is now daylight, the sky blue and clear. Mr. Choi is slithering towards the house, a dark slug leaving a trail of evil smelling pulp in his wake.
“He’ll clean up,” she reasons to Hahn, “once I’ve stripped his bones and given him a good bath, put him in clean clothes. And we’ll be in charge.” She felt more decisive. Yes. It could work.
Hahn catches her arm. “He is a revenant, Ma. And evil. I shall hack off his head!”
“Don’t you dare. He’s your father!”
“I disown him!”
Mrs. Choi looked at her son and wondered. Mr. Choi had a good reputation as husbands go. Of course, he had strictly rationed their food, but he never ever beat her or the boy too hard. The family always said how lucky she was. So she felt she must do the right thing.
“Look, Ma he’s coming.”
Mr. Choi is now dragging himself towards the boy, and Mrs. Choi hesitates. It’s his beloved son. But Mr. Choi hauls himself past the boy and up the steps, shedding rotten flesh and entrails, and is about to slide over the threshold. Mrs. Choi now understands he is slithering towards the large earthenware jar that nobody could ever touch except himself. It is full of money. Only Mr. Choi had the right to lift the stone lid and withdraw the banknotes and coins, only he could count and stack and return them intact to the jar, despite the boy’s need for shoes.
Then Mrs. Choi thought of all that money. Her hard-earned wages, mostly, from climbing banana trees and selling the fruit. Money that she was now using to properly feed herself and Hahn, and occasionally buy forbidden honeycomb cake.
Fury ignites in her. It rages and sets her heart pounding. She seizes the axe from Hahn, gripping it with purpose, and runs towards Mr. Choi. And, suddenly, she is staring into the wrathful eyes of Yama, seeing her whole married life reflected there. Calmly, with precision, she brings down the blade.
It is now dusk. A lemon sky and dark shadowed trees. Mrs. Choi and Hahn have shoveled Mr. Choi’s decapitated head and torso into an ugly heap, scooped up his muscles and entrails and thrown them on top.
When the shaman comes, the house is silent; clothes and food gone. He cannot find Mrs. Choi and her son. There is only a heap of smouldering bones, the whiff of frankincense and a large earthenware jar laying shattered in the grass.
Cheryl Powell is a Worcestershire (UK) writer whose work has been published in, among others, Coffin Bell, Litro, Spelk, Storgy, Reflex Fiction, Disturbing the Beast, Makarelle and The Mechanics Institute Review and performed by actors at the Liars’ League, Hong Kong. She has an MA from the Writing Programme at Warwick University and runs a local writing group.