12 Days of Christmas #10: An Iron Pragmatism

This story is very Chinese. At least, the sort of Chinese my father was. It was also rejected from the SEA anthology because apparently, they don’t think Hong Kong is from the Southeast of Asia.Here’s a map:

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Seriously.

I was very offended. Even on a cultural basis, my home town contains an incredible mix of peoples. But anyway.

This story is set in the same steampunk universe as Future. People keep forgetting other cultures were alive during the Victorian period, and their influence is still felt in 2016.

An Iron Pragmatism

 

Vivien Wong, housekeeping director at one of the largest hotels in the busy Kowloon district of Hong Kong, looked on helplessly as the geomancer upturned mattresses, loosened cabinetry and scuffed the carpet, as if an evil spirit would dart out from the floorboards. She only had six brooms for the eighteen floors of the hotel, and she didn’t trust four of them. They needed monitoring, sudden surprise supervision, and she couldn’t do it when she was babysitting a hack in clown clothes.

“Isn’t this enough? We have a complaint almost every month from this floor, and none of these holy men ever make a difference,” she had said to the general manager, a Briton by the name of Cushing. At first, she hadn’t gotten the hang of the unfamiliar western names, with their families last and themselves first, but after weeks of making up the beds of a hundred countries, she learned fast. Even Cushing had accepted her, broken English and all.

Outside, the sky junks and flying ships drifted by languidly, uncaring of her plight. Thick smog clouds drifting down from the manufactories in Canton hung low, drifting between them like ghosts. It made for perilous flight; one wrong maneuver and they would go crashing into the dense knots of arclit signage and hung laundry. She could just make out the old British tramlines across the bay, nearly hidden by the dense, multiple story urban sprawl of Hong Kong island.

She was partly glad to see the ships in such numbers. Each one carried a treasure box of tourists and businessmen, every one in need of lodgings. Partly, she resented having to tend to them, with their entitled, wealthy western attitudes, unreasonable demands, and the expectation of submission from a conquered East. The odd complaint of ghosts was actually refreshing.

She had looked up the word. ‘Feng-sui si-fu’ was too often corruptible on a western tongue, but ‘geomancer’ summoned the appropriate gravitas. Not that she believed it, but she needed to convince the pig-dogs hotel management was handling the problem.

Protestant priests were easy enough to come by, but they did not satisfy the staff’s demands. None of the staff thought the ridiculous men in their monochrome pajamas did anything. A ghost had to be cleansed with fire and incense, paid off in the Chinese way with hell money, and made to stay away with the proper invocations. In an age of alchemy and mysterious sciences, a man in a funny hat waving a large brush was usually enough to convince even a Briton of magic.

At last, the geomancer, a man by the name of Pao, was finished. He reverently placed a Tao mirror over the door, one Vivien knew she would have to remove with the first western tenant of the room. It was like a game- the geomancer tricked the clients, and Vivien tricked the geomancer. Maybe that was the point of a magic spell: a game to trick a person’s mind, with a prize of utter conviction at the end of it.

“You must make an offering of incense, at the hour of the tiger…” A prescription, as if Pao were a doctor.

As Vivien left after her graveyard shift, she gazed across Victoria Bay, lit by a gray orange sunrise. The Chinese were an inherently anachronistic people, and nowhere more so than the port of Hong Kong. Soaring towers grew out of a fine loam of squalid slums watered with open gutters. Men of the world spent their days negotiating profitable airship trades, and their nights negotiating local bodies. Perched on the edge of the South China Sea, at the center of trade, it was little wonder Britain wanted the Pearl of the East for their own.

Vivien first noticed the ghost following her on the mini-bus, a tight little steamer that ran a breakneck route from Hong Hum to Sha Tin, where she lived. The line began in the cluster of hotels, the stadium and the funeral homes, past the Kowloon Walled City and on towards the hills of the New Territories. Those neighborhoods had been negotiated from Imperial Canton only a few decades ago, to house the workforce of the city. ‘New Territories’ might as well have been a euphemism for ‘western conquest,’ much like how the Hong Hum residents called the funeral homes their ‘big hotels.’ Cantonese was full of euphemisms like that. Right now, she was thinking of the ghost as her ‘little friend.’

“It can’t be. I haven’t done anything. I’m not afraid of midnight knocks at the door,” she comforted herself with the proverb. It wasn’t quite true; she lived in a bad neighborhood full of triad members, and she had called in Pao the geomancer to get rid of the ghost, hadn’t she?

The shadowy figure seated directly behind her seemed almost to defy rational thought. She couldn’t see it if she looked back, in the guise of checking for her stop, but it was very clearly there in the reflection of the glass windows. It was almost too clearly a ghost, complete with all the details: no legs to speak of, pale skin and bloodshot eyes, the forlorn look of malicious bloodlust. Its tongue lolled, inhumanly long. Her own eyes weren’t looking too well, sunken and dark.

Instead of getting off at Sha Tin, she took a connecting bus out to a Buddhist temple. It was far out of her way, but with the speed demons driving the mini-buses, she made it there in only twenty minutes. The temple was still open, noon service over, and the monks in their simple yellow robes were just heading to their vegetarian lunch. A wrought iron roof sculpted in the shape of a lotus bloom housed the main altars, beside the much smaller original temple and square girls’ school nearby. The little knot of spirituality would have been imposing, if the growth of residences and manufactories didn’t hem in the compound on all sides.

“Oh dear,” one of the monks said, as she got close. “We’ll have to do something about that.”

Na Mo Oh Mei To Fut,” Vivien said. A call for Buddha. Another invocation, another game, but it happened to be the one she played well.

Buddhist monkhood was not in the practice of exorcisms. The monk admitted it freely, and cautioned her of monks who were more esoteric with their practices.

“I know of some who would do it, but they are doing it for selfish gain, and it will not work. Here is a man who may be able to help you,” the bald monk with the four spots on his pate said, handing her a number scribbled on the back of a crisp wrapper. “He is… grumpy, but he likes young women. He will try.”

The address was nearby, down a filthy street strewn with sundry shops and people playing mahjong. Vivien’s little friend followed her all down the street, but when they came across a tea restaurant with a temple of Guan Yu at the front, with his great sword-pike, it halted. It dared not cross the guardian’s sight. Guan Yu was a god given tribute by police and triad alike.

Vivien mulled on the Chinese character “god,” meaning both “attention” and “diety,” depending. It was as strangely dialectic as everything around her, the clash of ancient spirituality with modern buildings, the Chinese mahjong players having English-style tea.   

The exorcist was located round a side alley, in a tiny nook that closed with a metal shutter. There was bedding behind a thin curtain, and a table with some playing cards on it, neatly stacked. There was a public toilet nearby. The exorcist himself was fat, bald, and stubbly, slotted into a dirty yellow shirt. He wore a fanny pack, India rubber sandals and a gold sword on a string at his neck.

“Fortune is close, pretty lady. Twenty pence a reading,” he called, the usual sales pitch. When she got close, his brow darkened, and he reached behind him for a box wrapped in a cheap, but well cared for red cloth. The box had once housed a quartet of moon cakes.

“There’s…”

“Shush. Do not speak of it. The Big Brother is holding it at bay,” the exorcist told her. He extracted three copper pennies, and tossed them for reading. Then he consulted the I-Ching, a large book bound in red-washed paper. Vivien waited, ready with her full story, but the exorcist seemed unconcerned with the particulars. He had a paper cup of lovebird at his elbow, a stimulating drink of coffee mixed with tea and tinned milk. Vivien had never cared for it.

“It is not what you think,” the exorcist said. “Eight parts hunger to two parts vengeance. Did you fire anybody recently?”

“Well…” Vivien had. She’d gotten rid of a broom for breaking a client’s priceless Ming vase. It had been a minor mistake, really, and the Australian tourist would likely never visit again, but Cushing had wanted the woman gone. The broom had caught Vivien and Cushing borrowing a room at the hotel not a week previous.

“The woman had a brother. He starved to death, but he had been ill already. Fifty.”

“Excuse me?”

“Fifty pounds to take care of it. Mind, the grudge remains, but for now I can contain it for you.”

The exorcist seemed nonplussed with the price, nor his appearance, as if his grubby poverty did not mark him so blatantly as an inept conman. He did not move to impress Vivien with tricks or put on an elaborate robe, like the traveling holy men from the picture house reels. Perversely, Vivien trusted this anachronism more than anything else. The exorcist had no reason to impress her, because he had the “real gold, unafraid of the crucible.” Besides, Vivien had the monk’s recommendation.

Vivien shrugged, and handed over the cash.

“Now, let us see about your little friend,” the large man said, hauling himself from the folding stool with some effort. He reached up and took a small gourd from a top shelf. From another hidden nook, he extracted a contraption of some tarnished copper tubing, with a hand crank, a cavernous horn at the front, and a couple of glass arclight bulbs at the back. The exorcist put something into the gourd, and slapped the gourd into a slot on the device. “Even exorcists need to move with the times,” he said.

They walked back to the tea restaurant, and as they went the neighborhood waved and shouted amiably at the exorcist. In the bright, hot daylight, Vivien felt extraordinarily uncomfortable in her heels and her corseted linen dress. Why hadn’t she changed into her walking shoes? She was uncomfortably aware of the old stories of possession. A ghost took hold of someone by slipping their toes under the heels, maneuvering them around like those French marionettes she sometimes saw with the tourists’ kids.

“Here we are,” the exorcist said, stopping just in front of the ghost. Vivien could see its hideous form in the window. It had begun to bleed from the anus, and a horrible groaning was coming from it. The exorcist began to turn the crank on his device, emitting an even more horrible piercing screech. The ghost immediately ceased all its terrible activities, turning to run. It had the look of a young triad member discovering the joy of constabulary truncheons.But the exorcist’s device seemed to draw the ghost inexorably towards it, until it wasn’t there any more.

When the deed was done, the exorcist slapped a cork on the gourd, and handed it over to Vivien, who shied away from it as if it were made of feces.

“There we are. One ghost. Don’t refuse, it’s your friend. You risk further ill luck if you give him to me, or toss him to the wayside. Find a place for him and make offerings, that should take care of it.”

“How long?”

“I’d say eighty-eight days ought to do.”

“You are very different from the people I hire to exorcise the hotel,” Vivien said.

“I am not a hack. Besides, there’s so much ill luck at a hotel, the friends there are impossible to exorcise. More like tenants, if you ask me. By the way, my son is a doctor. Nothing like me. He doesn’t take a vow of poverty. I could introduce you. Here, have some coffee with me, call it a discount.”

Vivien laughed, but she was feeling the graveyard shift already. She took her gourd and went home, intending to put it on the family altar, with a dish of its own for fruits and chickens. She even considered getting some other offerings: pasteboard sedan engines, hell money, and a good western suit made of rice paper, so her friend would be well off in the afterlife. Maybe he could do with some hell servants, paper dolls three feet tall, sold in boy-girl pairs and painted with pale, slightly unnerving faces. She would burn the offerings down to her friend on the next auspicious day. She hadn’t felt good about firing the broom, but Cushing had insisted. Now she could make some amends.

Some months later, Vivien had almost completely forgotten the incident when yet another report came of a hotel haunting. She had dutifully made offerings and burned incense before the ghost, and though the eighty-eight days were up, she had thought it proper to continue. She had also found the broom she’d fired, and offered her the old job back. Cushing couldn’t tell one Chinese from another, not after so much time, she reasoned, and she was right.

The haunting was in a different part of the hotel, and it was a persistent poltergeist. All the brooms were afraid to go in, and Vivien sometimes caught glimpses of other specters fleeing before the offensive spirit. After her encounter with her little friend, she had suddenly become sensitive to such things, without being actually afraid. After all, she had worked with them for so long before, and they had done nothing to her.

When Vivien entered the room, it was cold, like the pantry in the kitchens stocked with airlifted ice from the North. The client’s belongings were strewn everywhere, frilly laces, top hats and bustles. The bedding was tossed all around, and there was the ghost, sitting on the bed, its head spinning round and round on its neck. The thing had horns, a forked tongue, and long, unkempt hair. It had destroyed the mattress beneath, the springs poking out of it. It would have to be replaced.

“Your mother…” Vivien cursed, something she’d picked up from the exorcist over the weekends. His son was not only a real doctor, as promised, but handsome, polite, and educated in Oxford. She had been visiting them as often as she could. 

The first order of business was to call in the hacks. She hadn’t made her way to her position without some amount of street politic, and she offered the job to her usual professionals right away. They went through the motions, of course, but either the ghost was completely invisible to them or they hadn’t the grit to dodge objects being thrown into their faces.

“Listen Viv, we absolutely must put a stop to this silliness. Can’t go about leaving a room empty for a week, spending all this money on street performers, now can we?” Cushing had mentioned one evening. He had tried to buy her a drink at the hotel’s bar, but not even good French Muscat would tempt her after he refused even to visit the haunted room.

Her exorcist flatly refused the job.

“How would I even walk inside? Those ‘gentlemen’ wouldn’t let my sweaty fat butt onto the doorstep.”

“At least do a reading for me, chubby,” Vivien had begged. “How do I fix this?”

“All right. Just because Michael likes you,” the exorcist said. He tossed his coins, consulted, frowned. Then he took out some incense and set them in a brazier of sand. He let it burn while he took another reading with a compass, in a wooden dial carved with symbols. When that failed, he took out a wood sword and a dagger made of copper coins strung together with red string. These he set about waving and balancing on two fingers, looking like an enormously obese crane. He inspected the incense, burned down to three long and two short nubs.

“I can’t help you. The damn ghost speaks English, I can’t read any of those chicken intestines they call words,” said the exorcist. 

This drew a string of profanity from Vivien, but the exorcist hastily held up his hands.

“There is another way! Remember the ghost I sealed for you the last time? We can use it to pacify this one.”

“So what? I have to let it out?”

“Kind of. It’s sort of like a cockfight, but with ghosts.”

“A ghost… fight. Really.”

“If you had to bet on a Chinese ghost or a Western ghost, which horse would you back?”

“Ehhhh….” Vivien trailed off. The analogy was far too close for comfort. Vivien had just lost a quarter of her paycheck at the Jockey Club nearby.

“Look, the fight itself will give us a chance to hold them. You’re familiar with hell servants?” the exorcist said.

“Yes. The paper dolls we burn for the dead, to serve in the afterlife,” Vivien recalled. The ones she had bought for her grandfather were tawdry things, colored rice paper and wadded newsprint, with flat, expressionless faces.

“I know a guy who makes a very special kind of hell servant. If we can lure the ghost into the doll, we can trap it inside.”

“Like a possession?” It wasn’t unheard of, the trope of local picture-house stories, for a wandering spirit to possess a hell servant. Their flat eyes and complete lack of personality made great homes for ghosts.

Vivien was becoming increasingly skeptical, but it was hard to argue with results, however unorthodox or unlikely the methods. She would have to sneak the exorcist in under cover of night, through the delivery entrance, but once inside he could blend in as a cook or porter. Even as she caught herself managing the logistics, she realized she had, unconsciously, decided to go through with it.  

Vivien was nothing if not methodical, and the next evening she arranged to bring the exorcist to the haunted hotel room. Even in graveyard shift they could not be assured of privacy in a hotel, but news of a haunting was like news of a plague to the superstitious Chinese. The hotel cooks were the first to volunteer to help her bring the exorcist in with his equipment. They worked with knives for a living, and were sensitive to inauspicious things. A good thing too. The hell servant dolls needed to be loaded onto a tea trolley, each one about three feet long. They were quite heavy.

Outside the room, the plain door seemed to exude an aura of menace. Even the gas lamps were flickering, and all the nearby fixtures froze the touch.

“Now?” Vivien asked.

“Now we introduce them,” the exorcist said. “You brought the gourd?”

She had, reverently wrapped in a bit of silk. It rather gave her a shock when the exorcist opened it, tipped out what looked like a pockmarked beige stone, and threw the gourd over his shoulder.

“It’s really mostly the gesture. The ghost is willing to come with us anyway, Bodhi seed or no,” said the exorcist. “He appreciates your offerings and the way you’re taking care of his sister.” He lifted the towel over the tea trolley, and dropped the seed into the one of the dolls’ mouth.

Vivien expected some kind of dramatic revelation, like in the picture-house reels. She would turn around for some plot point or other, suddenly the thing would be beside her, and she might have to deliver the gut-wrenching scream she had practiced earlier. She was actually torn about the scream; she didn’t want to seem too much a damsel in distress, but she didn’t want to show too much of the mettle beneath the glitz, either.What if Michael, the exorcist’s doctor son, found out? Chinese men didn’t like a woman with too much fight in her. 

After a moment the doll simply twitched, once or twice, and sat up, patting at itself. What it found were some brassy arms, ratcheting along sprockets in the shoulders, and a chest hollowed out from an old boiler, all held together with rusty springs and bolts. Vivien felt there was something familiar about how it moved, like it was making room for an inhumanly lolling tongue.

“Come with us,” the exorcist said. He opened the door to the hotel room, seeming not to mind the sudden blast of cold. The hell servant walked by Vivien, gave a nod in passing, and disappeared into the room. The exorcist closed the door behind the shuffling doll.

“What about the other one?”

“Shhh. Wait.”

Vivien did not have long to wait. The hotel room was soon filled with the familiar sounds of the foreign ghost making a fuss. Vivien recognized the room’s kettle being overturned, wardrobes upset with a thud, the pretty brocade armchair whirling a blazing pirouette on the carpeting. A western-style clock had survived the various hauntings, but now there was a metallic clang of it being hurled into the hell servant’s chest. A smaller clamor followed, of small parts clattering across hard surfaces. After a while, the sounds stopped.

“Now!” the exorcist said. Quick as a wink, he opened the door again and rolled the tea trolley inside, closing the door behind it. He brought out his geomancer’s compass, watching the needle flit like a crazed moth.

“Okay, they’re unsure about it… good, good, the westerner knows about the other doll. Now its getting inside…”

There was another metallic thud, like airships docking. A staccato of horrid, tinny rending followed, and Vivien began to worry the other tenants might come complaining about the din. She mentally ticked off the room numbers around her: 9412, an elderly couple, hard of hearing. 9414, vacant. 9415, a hard-drinking businessman, probably out like a light. The rest of the rooms were either empty or too far away for the sound to reach.

“And now they’re fighting,” the exorcist explained. The sounds continued for well on ten minutes, until the broken, uneven crashes turned into a rhythmic clanging, like an alarum.

“Ah,” the exorcist said.

“Ah what?”

“It looks the western ghost was a lady. They’re ‘fighting,’” the exorcist explained. Vivien buried her face in her hands- damn these euphemisms!

It was nearly daybreak before the sounds faded. There was an iron tang to the air when they opened the door to the room, but inside, all was at peace. The place was in shambles, but every piece of furniture lay immobile, every small item long ceased rolling about. On the bed, the two hell servant dolls lay in each other’s arms. One of them was wearing the top hat.

Vivien said something about somebody’s entire family, the profanity dropping from her lips in a vomit of outrage.

“I’m glad Michael’s getting a firecracker. The boy needs some toughening up,” the exorcist remarked, before hoisting the tea trolley upright and beginning to move the dolls. He had a basin, too, on the trolley, for burning hell money and the requisite grapefruit leaves to cleanse their bodies.

“What does it all mean?” Vivien gaped. She stood in the middle of the chaos, part of her totting up the sum needed to restore everything in the room, part of her simply agog at the surreal scene before her. The lady doll had a face of white porcelain. Most of the body was now concealed in an elaborate frilly dress.

“It means ghosts are just like people,” the exorcist said, breathing hard as he tried to lift the second doll onto the trolley. It was a bit too ungainly, and he ended up tipping it back on the bed in an untidy heap. “They have needs, some of them extremely pragmatic. When they’re spent, they’re spent. Now are you going to help, or am I getting a lazy slob for a daughter-in-law?”

Vivien took the most prudent course available, and she began to laugh, in great hacking guffaws as she bent to clear up the mess.

 

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