The Early-Morning Garden
In hazy mist, Jade dragged her bent figure into the garden and saw a piece of paper among the tiger lilies. With her boney, age-stained fingers, she picked it up. School Starts, it read. On Monday in the Square, continued on the back. Her village had no school when she was a young girl.
"Oh, it's today!" She leaped up and began running. A smile flashed across her face as her knees no longer hurt, spots dotting her skin like plum-blossoms.
"Mother, take your medicine," her son said, but no reply came. When he glanced outside, a snow leopard vanished.
The Li clan was a wealthy, well-known family in the city of Yangzhou. They resided in a mansion with a small army of servants. Both their peonies in the garden and their youngest daughter were renowned for their beauty throughout the region. Although abundant suitors sought the girl's hand in marriage, her father was reluctant to let her go and kept spurning marriage offers.
The girl turned sixteen. On the fifteenth day of the first month in the lunar calendar, the streets and shops were adorned with colorful lanterns as the town celebrated the Lantern Festival. Soon after, the girl fell ill and took to her bed. Her family thought she had caught the common cold, but she didn't get any better. She remained silent, drank only water, and grew thinner day by day. The town doctor gave up all hope of saving her. Her father called a respected Taoist priest and sought his advice.
"Your daughter has been enchanted by an otherworldly creature," the priest said. "I know it because her breath smells like a swamp."
When the priest made the girl swallow a crushed pill, she vomited mud and a large fish scale.
"On the evening of the Lantern Festival, I was gazing at the peonies on the edge of the pond," the girl said when her throat was free from the scale. "A young man approached me and held my hand. ‘I will make you my wife if you wait for me here on the next full-moon night,' he said and placed a fish-shaped sugar figure into my mouth."
The girl said she was hungry. When a young maid brought her hot soup with sweet dumplings, the girl gobbled one dumpling after another.
That night, a full moon rose overhead. The girl's father and the priest placed the girl's lantern on the edge of the pond and waited. After a while, they spotted a dark shadow streaking through the water, just below the surface. When the fish stuck its head out, the priest hurled a harpoon at it. Splashing sounds cut through the otherwise silent night. The fish leaped in the air, dodging the priest's attack. Before it sank back into the muddy water, the fish glared at them with its human-like eyes. It never resurfaced again.
The girl's father offered the priest a monetary reward, but he refused to accept it and left the Li residence.
After that day, no one saw the girl ever again.
We went into the Changbai Mountains to dig up ginseng roots. Hacking our way through the thick growth, we called each other's names to keep from getting lost. But one of us became quiet. He was gone.
Before it got dark, the rest of us set up camp in a clearing and placed a pot of water over an open fire. Then a figure emerged from between the trees. It was him. I held my breath and fumbled for the amulet beneath my shirt. Before our eyes, he grew taller and taller, his body stretching like a thread of syrup.
Umiyuri Katsuyama is a multiple-award-winning writer of fantasy and horror, often based on Asian folklore motifs. A native of Iwate in the far north of Japan, she later moved to Tokyo and studied at Seisen University. In 2011, she won the Japan Fantasy Novel Award with her novel Sazanami no kuni. Her most recent novel, Chuushi, ayashii nabe to tabi wo suru, was published in 2018. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous horror anthologies in Japan.
Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in LiteraryTranslation from the University of Arkansas. His recent translations have appeared in Asymptote, Clarkesworld, Samovar, and The Cafe Irreal.