*Necrosis (from the Greek νέκρωσις "death, the stage of dying, the act of killing" from νεκρός "dead")
‘Won’t there be ghosts?’ asked Peng.
Zhao turned away from fiddling with the camera to stare at his dorm mate.
‘What’s that you say, fatty?’ He used the playful nickname he’d bestowed on his porky friend the first day they met at university and set up their room together.
‘Ghosts, will there be ghosts at the morgue tonight?’ Peng disregarded the nickname because that's what his name meant, “big”. And after all, he had lived up to the name his grandparents had given him when he had been cut out of his diminutive mother’s womb, weighing in at a massive ten pounds. He’d always been a big boy and now after twenty winters had passed he towered over his college mate.
‘Are you scared, you big baby?’ Zhao looked at his friend over the round glasses he affected. Peng knew they were just clear glass and Zhao was just coming the intellectual hoping to impress the pretty girls on their course.
They were both in their final year and had been attending classes at Nanjing University of Media and Television studies. Their sights were set on becoming documentary cameramen, and had been working on their final dissertation piece. It was this that was worrying Peng.
‘Why did we have to choose the mortuary, little brother? There were many other suggestions we could have gone with.’
‘Like what?’ Zhao held his Sony Alpha and squinting at the screen aimed it at his fat friend.
Peng turned away, he didn’t like being on display, he liked being being in charge, doing the filming.
‘What about that idea about the dancing aunties?’
‘Boring.’ Zhao started to stalk Peng knowing how uncomfortable the all seeing lens was for him.
Peng span away.
‘That idea about the rive…’
‘The interviews with comrades from the…’
‘Nah, a bunch of meetings with old farts, where’s the drama, the story, the entertainment?’
He caught Peng in a tight close up. ‘What say you buddy?’
The red light was flashing, and Li Peng was at a loss to say anything. If the truth be known, he was a bit of a fellow traveller, and he was sure he would have failed the course much earlier had not the God’s of chance put him in the same dorm room as Wang Zhao.
‘But the morgue at night? Zhao, I’m not sure it's a good idea.’
Zhao stopped filming, and looked over the top of the camera.
‘You arescared, eh, fatty? Don’t worry it’ll be fine. People work there 24/7. That’s what we’re gonna do, tell their story and maybe the stiff’s too.’
Zhao slung an arm across his friend’s wide shoulders. ‘And you know what the date is don’t you?’
Peng looked confused. ‘Ah, date? What date? It’s Friday right?’
‘No, dummy, the date, the actual date.’ Zhao sighed. ‘It’s the 15thJuly, right?’
Peng shrugged little brothers arm off his shoulders. ‘So?’ He asked, but something sparked in his brain. A memory of his NaiNai telling him stories a long time ago. Of being led by the hand to places he didn’t like.
‘Ghost Festival.’ Zhao announced with undisguised glee in his voice. ‘Tonight is Ghost Festival, the perfect time to be in a morgue at midnight don’t you think?’
Peng remembered. His NaiNai would take him to peoples houses. The incense smoke would be thick and cloying mixing with the smoke from the burnt offerings, the paper TV’s, houses, even cars to please the ghosts who have risen through the gates of heaven and hell. NaiNai explained they wandered the streets seeking food and entertainment. NaiNai would be working, speaking with the ghosts, telling the families their fortunes while, always hungry, he snaffled food from the tables and watched TV.
‘It’s not a good idea then, let’s call it off, do something else.’ Peng reached for his tea bottle and took a deep draught to wet his dry mouth. ‘It will be bad luck for us to go there tonight.’
‘Ha, you are scared, you’re a fat fool, big brother. It’s just old grandma tales, all this tradition and rubbish. This is the 21stcentury, there are no ghosts.’
‘Can you be so sure? My NaiNai…’
‘There, I told you,’ Zhao cut him off, ‘Nothing but old grandma tales, superstitious rubbish. Can’t you see brother; this will be perfect. Being in the mortuary at midnight during the Ghost Festival. It’s a winner for sure, maybe we can submit the film to a big film festival, make our names, be famous.’
A look of worry crossed his face. He held out the camera. ‘What do you think Peng, is the Sony too good? I want a Blair Witch vibe on this one. You know, hand-held, shaky, black and white. What cameras did they use, huh? You know that stuff––I forget.’
With the change of subject Peng felt on safer ground. Even though Zhao was manipulating him for his own ends, as always. Peng was more the theoretician than Zhao, he was the whizz behind the camera, of that, there was no doubt. Come to think of it, Peng realised, he’d pulled Zhao out of the shit more than once when homework was due.
‘Actually they used 16mm cameras, something like an Arri and an RCA Hi8 Camcorder, it was all a big con job though, we can’t do that the––’
‘Yeah, I know. Wang Zhao sighed. This two-bit university doesn’t have the equipment I need to make a decent film.’ Zhao waved the Sony at Peng. ‘I blame my parents; they could have sent me to the New York Film Academy––cheapskates. I probably could’ve had a film up at Sundance by now.’
Peng rolled his eyes, while there was no doubting his friends ambition, it didn’t hurt to take him down a peg or two.
‘Ah, but you didn’t do so well in your Gaokao eh, little brother? And so…’ Peng pirouetted arms outstretched showing off their cramped room, ‘and so here we are.’
‘Look at this, look at this, Peng’s roommate waved the Sony in the air, I even had to buy this myself. How will I ever make it big with this cheap crap?’ Zhao sat on the lower bunk and rolled the camera in his hands.
‘It's a good camera, little brother, good for the low light,’ Peng paused, ‘hey, tell me again why we have to be there at midnight?’
The DiDi taxi dropped the three of them off at the morgue where they were due to meet with the mortuary supervisor who had allowed them access to his domain. Peng, Zhao, and Co Co. Co Co was one of the girls on the course who had volunteered to be the soundperson. Peng wasn’t sure she was the right fit for the project but Zhao had been mooning over her for weeks. She was one of those girls with an apathetic attitude and her face constantly aimed at her smartphone.
Peng sighed as he watched her collect her equipment. A Goth, she had gone all out for the evenings work. Long dark hair fell in curtains against a pan white face. Black eyeliner and dark lipstick gave her a ghoulish look. A charcoal dress that looked like it was based on 19thcentury mortuary wear topped the ensemble. He knew it was a mistake to have her as part of the crew. But she had shaken her indolence off and volunteered once she heard what we were up to. Zhao was like a dog with two tails when she was around, despite her continued indifference towards him.
As they stood outside the gates of the dark building waiting to be collected, the security guards watched them curiously from their brightly lit cabin. Now they were actually here Peng had the sure signs of the jitters fliting around his stomach––he hoped the place had a toilet.
It had taken a mountain of paperwork, meetings, official stamps and a serious amount of Guanxito get them in. Zhao’s father had been at his most useful during the negotiations. He was an honoured member of the Party and a local official with a bank account that belied his mid-range job.
Even as they went through the polite introductions with the big man in the grey shirt and black trousers who came out to meet them, Peng noticed a bright red envelope changing hands. Hongbao, the grease that oiled Chinese society and business life.
Pan, the mortuary supervisor, hustled them between the big double doors and into a brightly lit corridor. On either side behind glass doors were rooms, the rooms where the bodies were stored in fridges. Peng stopped in mid-stride, he hadn’t expected…what hadn’t he expected? He wasn’t sure. Was that the hum of the refrigeration units filling his ears? He took a breath. The air tasted of… Death? His stomach lurched a little and his mouth filled with saliva.
Peng sniffed trying to distinguish the aromas like a tea expert he once saw on The Taste of China. It just smelt clean, with an underlying chemical tang, not the sweet and sickly cloying stench he expected to find in the house of mortality.
They were shown into a side room where Pan sat them down at a table and and laid down the rules. Rule which had been agreed at the many meetings they had sat through.
No filming of the faces of the deceased.
Stay out of the way of the morticians doing their work.
If relatives turn up, disappear back into this room until they have gone.
Don’t touch anything.
Zhao was looking serious and was making notes on the tablet he used to storyboard his documentaries. Co Co looked bored and fiddled with her phone and Peng wondered where the ghosts were.
He’d attended two family funerals and many others with NaiNai, and knew the spirits had to be appeased. The bodies now resting in the drawers in the fridges would be in their ceremonial clothes having been changed into them at the hospital by their close family, if the deceased had died there. Peng wondered about those who had died in a car accident or fell off a bridge, what of them? If their families did not know of their deaths and had not appeased their ancestors the spirits would be unhappy. And tonight, this night of the Ghost Festival, was when they appeared looking to be placated with the offerings of money, food and goods.
The humming noise in his ears increased and he started to feel light headed. Pan was speaking, his mouth opening and closing, but Peng couldn’t hear him. He was hearing other things, remembering times past, when he was young, when NaiNai cosseted and coddled him, telling him he was special. Peng hadn’t felt special for a long time.
The relatives of the newly deceased, now interred in the cold steel boxes along the walls in the next room were, even now, he thought, gathering at the dead person’s house to pay their respects, and light some incense. He had seen this many times in his past. Peng was sure he didn’t want to meet any grieving relatives and was just as sure he didn’t want to meet any ghosts either.
His NaiNai had whispered many stories as he lay in her bed, feeling the warmth of her bony body, about the spirits of his past ancestors and of the spirit world. She had told him she could speak to them, and often, usually at a family get together during the holidays, she would start speaking with this or that ancestor spirit and telling the rest of the family what was going to befall them in the coming months.
Peng believed his NaiNai could speak to the ancestors despite his mum pooh poohing it, a wild look in her eyes as she told him not to listen to the old woman. It was just old grandma superstitions she said, it had no place in this modern world, she said, as she lit the incense in a temple for a religion she didn’t believe in. As a kid, during these strange family events, funerals, tomb sweeping days, the Spring Festival, he listened to the words coming from the old woman’s mouth and watched the strange colour her eyes turned, yellow with a green iris as the spirit inhabited her body. He would do this hiding behind his pa, holding on to his strong bicep, breathing in the heady scent of Bijou and cigarette smoke, or curled up on a handy chair, wrapped in a blanket as the room grew dark and cold.
In the houses they visited, things rustled and moved, clothing hanging on the drying rack would fill out and flutter. He’d seen with his own eyes, the same thing happening at the funeral of his NaiNai. Her clothes were laid out, as was the custom, and as the priest chanted some incantations and prayers over the scene her clothes filled, as if a breeze was passing through them, and then softly deflate. He was never scared, his NaiNai had always been with him as he grew up.
And was still with him.
Peng fell out of the reverie about his NaiNai and saw big brother and little sister waiting on him. Zhao had the camera out of the bag and ready to shoot. Co Co held the microphone rig upright like an ancient pike man, blank eyes staring into the distance, face expressionless as if she was listening to something. It was his job to be the assistant, making sure the cameraman didn’t fall over or bump into things, organising the clapper for the shots and the editing later on, carrying the lenses and the extra batteries. Tonight he was basically a gofer.
‘Right. Tablet?’ Peng held out his meaty hand.
Zhao handed over the tablet and Peng swiftly opened up the storyboard for the running order.
‘Okay, first shots outside. Then a long shot showing the building and then in through the double doors.’
Sure enough, within the hour, a new body turned up, and with it a retinue of grieving and wailing relatives. Pan hustled the student film crew back into the room where they sat around a table sipping at the lukewarm tea somebody in a plastic smock delivered to them. It was almost midnight. They had been filming for around an hour and Peng was feeling peckish.
‘I’m hungry.’ He complained to the room. Co Co had, upon entering the room, sat down at the table, folded her arms and laying her head down fell asleep.
Zhao was scrolling through the video he had taken earlier. ‘What’s that fatty?’ He didn’t look up.
‘Ok, Ok, shit, shit, ah nice… good stuff, ew, look at that, nasty…’ his attention was elsewhere as Peng tried again.
‘I’m hungry, it’s late. Do you think they have a snacks machine here…some noodles perhaps?’ He rubbed his round belly, as taut as a basketball under his shirt.
It was a stomach Peng was proud of. In the hot weather he would pull his tee shirt up for all to see––a style called, he was told, the Beijing Bikini, but he didn’t care. Some of the girls didn’t either, they would make a point of coming across to stroke his tummy, their warm hands doing strange things to his insides. No wonder, he thought, Buddha was so blissed out, when even strangers wanted to have a rub.
‘ I’m hungry too.’ The words were mumbled through the mop of hair covering the head laid on the table. Co Co didn’t move. ‘Buy something in, don’t want pot noodle,’ she added.
‘Yeah, good idea, we could do that, we might be here a while anyway.’ Zhao put the camera on the table and pulled out his phone.
‘What shall we get big brother, I want something spicy to get this shit taste of death out of my mouth, Co Co, how ‘bout you, little sister.’
‘I ain’t your little sister, and I like the taste, it’s cool.’ Co Co sat up, her long black hair falling away from her pallid face, her eyes rimmed red. ‘Spicy is good, I like it spicy, hot. Burning…burning…’ she grinned at the two boys who looked at her strangely.
Peng experienced a strange whistling noise in his ears and then an urgent need to piss.
‘I, I, need a piss, just get whatever, little brother, you know what we like.’ Then he took a step backwards away from the crazy looking girl.
Peng opened the door and checked the corridor left and right. There were no grieving relatives. But he was sure he could hear something, something above the strange whistling in his ears, some whispering, sighing, from somewhere in the building. The toilets were down the brightly lit corridor, through some double doors and at the end of a dimly lit passageway. He hesitated, before gritting his teeth and setting off to ease his bladder. His footsteps echoed along the marble tunnel before him. This fascination for covering everything with marble was beyond him, it made everything cold
Just like a tomb.
He rubbed his arms as goose bumps started to rise, it was getting colder as he hurried towards the WC. He heard his NaiNai’s voice in his head telling him of the afterlife, and how he had the gift, and how he would understand when he was older. He shrugged it off. He’d never thought of that before. Never heard her words in his head before.
How could he remember that now? Now of all days, of all times, in a fucking mortuary?
The words whispered around his brain.
Peng sighed as he let go a hot stream of piss. the steam curling up around him.
It’s just nerveshe thought. This place gives me the willies. I shouldn’t have come.
The door banged open. He jumped and almost peed down his leg. It was Zhao.
‘My phones dead, I can’t understand it, I made sure it was charged before we came out.’
He held the phone out as evidence that the device was useless.
‘You’ll have to call the food in, you have your iPhone. Right?’
NaiNai was in his head again. ‘Are you hungry, do you want feeding?’ Do you want to feed?’
Peng nodded unconsciously, answering his NaiNai’s call as he shook himself off. I am hungry.
NaiNai in his head again. Peng listened, he had always listened to NaiNai. She spoke of his life now and what it would be. He had to prepare himself. Was this how NaiNai did it when she spoke with the spirits? Perhaps he had the gift too and now was his time?
He watched Zhao as he unzipped his trousers and stood at a urinal. Peng became suspicious of his friend. Did he really know Zhao? Certainly he came from a privileged family but so did a lot of students at the university. Most of them were pricks, but Zhao had stuck by him. Hadn’t he?
Maybe NaiNai would tell him more…
He washed his hands and pulled the phone out of his backpack. Later they were going to take some footage using the device, in low light, they had this…well Zhao had this idea about doing something spooky like Blair Witch. He did seem to be fascinated by that film. Was that why Co Co was along? They didn't need a sound assistant; they’d never had one before. Maybe they would take some hot shots of Co Co out in the ancient graveyard that surrounded this mortuary and crematorium? And if they did who would they sell them to, who in their right mind would find Co Co attractive, apart from Zhao?
He could hear more whispers, not just his NaiNai, now his ancestors, his ancient relatives, coming to visit, whispers, songs, poems, sage advice. He could hear them.
‘Zhao, can you hear that?’
‘Hear what? Fatty.’ His friend was zipping himself up as he turned away from the urinal.
‘Oh, nothing, it was probably that family, they were loud when they came in.’
‘Yeah, you okay big boy, you look a little… ill.’ Zhao looked at him quizzically.
Trying to remain normal but afraid he was losing his mind, Peng swiped to the delivery app and keyed in an order. Enough for three, his favourite spicy chicken, vegetables and the duck blood soup. He added rice too, as he was sure to still feel hungry after their feast. His stomach felt bottomless, an empty void waiting to be filled, he had never felt this hungry before. He clicked on the location finder and sent the address for the delivery to the restaurant.
He glanced into the mirror and then took a closer look, was that a tinge of yellow in his eye? He blinked.
‘Okay, lets go,’ Zhao was at the washbasins rinsing his hands. ‘Still afraid of ghosts big brother? Are they in the mirror? Wooo,’ he waggled his fingers at Peng’s reflection, a wide grin across his face.
Peng was about to answer when his phone beeped. It was his message app.
‘Hello,’ said a disembodied voice. “You just made an order, right?’
‘Yes, any problem?’ Peng and Zhao were walking back along the cold echoing corridors.
‘N, no,’ said the voice, it’s just that…’
‘What? Look when’s the food coming? I am hungry and I have work to do’
‘It’s just that… the address.’
‘What about the address it’s correct, the GPS shows you on a map.’
‘B, but it's the mortuary, and it’s gone midnight…’
‘Yes, how long before you get here?’
‘Are you a ghost?’ the voice tremored along the corridor, bouncing off the walls.
‘What the fuck? Am I a ghost, do I sound like a ghost? No? Listen here brother, you better get the food here quickly or you will be a ghost.’
‘You hear that?’ Peng waved his phone at Zhao, ‘The idiot delivery guy thinks we’re ghost’s, ghosts who can order food on an app. Funny, huh?’
They were both laughing as they entered the room they had been waiting in. Co Co’s head was back down on her arms and a gentle snoring was emanating from the hair that covered her face and swirled across the table.
Peng noticed Zhao looking at her. He nudged his friend. ‘Have you?’ he sniggered into his friend’s ear.
Wang Zhao, never one to hide his bushels, plastered a smirk across his face.
‘Of course,’ he puffed himself up, ‘she couldn’t get enough.’
Co Co raised her head from the table her eyes glistened red.
‘They have spoken, they are coming.’
She kicked the chair back and lunged towards her college mates, eyes wild, mouth open, hands clawed. Then she was at Zhao’s throat, tearing and pulling, sucking, moaning and gouging at his eyes with her black nails.
The voices in Peng’s head reached a shrieking crescendo. He reached down and pulled Co Co from the twitching remains of little brother. She struggled and wriggled, screaming and spitting. He held her close to his rounded belly listening to NaiNai in his head. He closed his big hands around the delicate throat of the girl and squeezed and squeezed until like a rag doll she dropped lifeless in his arms.
In the corridor the big man in the grey shirt and black trousers, Pan, watched. His Mongolian features accentuated in the bright shining light, his eyes flaring yellow and green.
Peng stood in the cool air of the night. It was dark. A liquid dark that seemed to flow all around him. He was waiting. A beeping sound broke the silence and a light pierced the blackness. His phone. He pressed the answer icon.
‘Hello?’ The same voice as before, the delivery boy. ‘H, hello?’ Unsure.
‘Yes, you are here?’
‘I, I think, so…’ a short sound, like a sob, came out of the speaker.
‘Where are you. I am hungry.’
‘Outside…brother, I am scared. This is wrong…maybe I got lost…I thought I took the short way, but now I’m…’ a sob. ‘Please come and take your food, I want to go…there.. maybe there’s ghosts here.’ More sobs.
‘Wait, brother, trust me, there are no ghosts. I will come. Shine your light so I can see you.’
Peng didn’t need a light. He could smell the fear. It led him to his feast.
NaiNai was right, the dead could speak. He had the gift, they had told him what to do, taught him, showed him, empowered him, and followed him. He wasn’t afraid anymore. He turned his yellow eyes with the emerald sparks towards the dark shadows of the ancient graveyard and made ready to welcome the Luo Sha, the Rakshasa––the maneater.