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Yǒngshí

We go by many names. But our most common name is Time Giver—though this is only half true.

It has been fifty years since I finished his huà—painting—and fifty years since the village burnt down. With the survivors, I slaved to restore what I had ruined and vowed never to offer time or love again.

We’re still rebuilding.

With my máobǐ—ink brush—in one hand, I hover above the aged scroll while my other hand rests at my lower back. The paper, brittle and dry, crinkles when the máobǐ meets its surface, dampening it with black ink. The liquid dries as soon as the stroke is complete. With every stroke time taken is away. In what form? It is always hard to tell. Usually there is sudden illness.

Time taken is sometimes a blessing. My huà is close to completion. A hacking cough escapes me.

You must be precise. My grandmother’s voice rings in my head. You can remove strokes after completing a huà. You will no longer be able to erase the ink.

When my past lover left me aid the flames, couched on all fours, my blood boiled in my veins. With my máobǐ and scroll he fled. I found him nestled among shrubbery, whispering the name, “Yǒngshí.” I would not hear his excuses for why he had set the village aflame to steal the scroll, or the secret lover I had thought he hid from me. Humans, I had forgotten, were driven by greed and desire.

I had finished his huà out of spite, as revenge for the village, but mostly because of the pain he had caused me. My eyes fixated on his spirit as it left his body, sealed for eternity in the scroll.

I later discovered that “Yǒngshí” was his daughter.

You will no longer be able to erase the ink.

I run my hand over the scroll and whisper my name. The paper unravels until it curls and pools around my feet, stopping at my unfinished spirit huà. Above it is my grandmother’s. She is smiling. Our faces both ageless. Join me when you’ve found your successor. I want to join her now. There is nothing left for me in the mortal world. My grandmother had served the king when she was still alive. I serve no one. Not anymore.

It only takes a few strokes to complete my missing features. The only missing elements are my two irises. My eyes offer a blank stare, my mouth a straight line. Time means nothing to me now, but many humans would grovel for minutes, even seconds. Such strange creatures. I loved one of them, once, but I should have understood that betrayal is a common occurrence among them—it always will be. To think that I could change my lover . . .

I dip the máobǐ into my jar of ink once more. The hairs lap up the dark liquid, spreading over its thin body, thickening its hairs. I sip my tea before I continue. My huà beckons me. The scroll always desires more spirits . . . and a successor, if I can find one. It would have to be a human. I have no children and do not plan on having any. But humans . . . I do not believe are worthy of the scroll and its magic.

A drop of darkness falls from the tip of the máobǐ, creating a contained dot of black on the translucent brown parchment. The ink does not splatter, but it sinks and becomes a part of the scroll, filling in my right iris. Only my left iris remains. And my signature to complete the blood oath to either transfer the scroll as my grandmother had done or to seal it forever.

Not everyone is worthy of extra time or even time itself.

Before my grandmother had passed on the scroll, before sealing her spirit within. She told me to give more time to those who deserve it—not to the likes of the king she served, who wanted only immortality though the rest of his kingdom suffered, but those with a worthy cause, and those who would give up their time for noble sacrifices yet cursed with brief lives.

After serving the king, my grandmother had saved those who would later win wars and allowed for the return of peace; people who stopped floods from reaching villages; people who became skilled doctors and saved thousands of lives. They were the ones who changed her mind about humans, though not completely. Doubt will always be attached to humanity and its failures, often overshadowing its merits.

Unlike my grandmother, my judgement of character is not as sound.  I still do not cannot tell, the good humans from the bad.

The first person I saved after my grandmother completed her huà was him. Like many others, my lover sought time, immortality that I refused to give. When he set fire to the hut we shared, I knew he never understood time and never would.

Mere men cannot take my life. My life belongs to the scroll. I brought my charred skin back to life by removing strokes from my huà—strokes added by the fire.

The tears that travelled down my face triggered by betrayal later morphed into shame for my naivety. When I finished my lover’s huà, I had intended to finish mine immediately after. There would be no successor, I would only end up choosing a fool.

It is not yet time.

My eyes land on my grandmother’s signature—a blood-inked fingerprint.

I rinse the máobǐ in water, smooth out its hairs with my fingers, and lay it next to the scroll. The máobǐ rolls towards the end of the table and a small hand catches it before I do. A young girl, perhaps twelve, holds out the máobǐ towards me and smiles. My lips remain still. Months had passed without visitors at my stall, how did she find me?

Trust humans seldom, but that does not mean not at all.

There is one difference between my grandmother and I: she was a stranger to betrayal and flaw because she could read the masks of humans easily. The king did not betray her. He was transparent with his wishes. But my grandmother betrayed him when she could no longer stand his horrific reign. I am easily swayed by seemingly kind faces and warm smiles. Not now. She never had hope for the mortals who traded their spirits for time, but sometimes she gambled regardless.

“I heard you give time,” the young girl said, peering at me with her head dipped forward.

“Not anymore.” I looked away, paying her no mind.

“Please . . . my mother is sick.”

I paused. “You would like time for your mother?”

“No, I would like more time for myself.”

“Yourself?”

A selfish request. I should know better than to hope for something more.

I notice the rings of rotting flesh that dot her body. I recognize it as the disease they call Wormrot. It is not contagious but deadly for its hosts. I sip my tea. The cup is almost empty.

“I do not want my mother to suffer more than she has to, but she wishes for a natural death. I myself only have a few days left. I would like more time to work to pay for my mother’s grave.”

I stare at the tea leaves at the bottom of my cup. How curious.

Though I have no intention to give any more time to humans, I ask, “How much time would you like?”

“One month. The doctor said my mother has one month left.”

I look at the máobǐ by my hand. My fingers drum against my table’s wooden surface.

You have such a weakness for humans. I do not understand. My grandmother’s chuckle wafts around me. Do you not see malice? Can you not tell who is cunning and who is pure?

“What is your name?”

I dip the máobǐ in water. And if she is like him?

“Yǒngshí.”

My máobǐ hovers over the scroll. I take a second look at the young girl. Like him, her eyes shine green eyes, darkened by the wooden planked roofing hiding us from the sun. Her curly red hair, the colour of heated iron where his was like dull clay. And a birdlike frame, delicate, fragile. His was clumsy. But both of them are beautiful. I wonder if her mother is beautiful too.

My heart quickens as my lover’s daughter waits with a quiet patience in front of me. It is the same patience he offered me when I tried to explain the concept of time that even I had, have, trouble understanding. His patience was feigned. Why do you hold onto your life so dearly when you are only living on borrowed time?

“I will give you the time if you report back to me what you do with it.”

How could you be so sure when you have already been mistaken once before?

I can no longer tell my grandmother’s words from my own thoughts.

Yǒngshí nods.

A deep breath escapes my lips. I whisper her name and the scroll searches for her huà. The two huà of me and my grandmother disappear and in its place is Yǒngshí. Only one eye remains incomplete much like my own.

My breath holds still as I plunge the máobǐ onto the scroll’s surface.

I let the water run from it over Yǒngshí’s completed right eye, looking up at me with a certain determination. I saw determination in his eyes when he ripped the scroll the from my hand and dropped the torch beside me. The determination here is similar. Rather than saving themselves, they only want to save another.

The ink bleeds before evaporating.

Yǒngshí’s wounds improve. The Wormrot rings, moss-like, become a faded pink, still indented in the skin.

The next day, Yǒngshí runs towards my stall in the middle of the market with an apple in her hand.

“I helped the farmer today.” Her voice is as crisp as slicing into fresh fruit.

“Oh?” I cannot help but allow the curiosity to slip into my voice.

“They taught me how to grow crops.”

I imagine Yǒngshí running through the fields with the sun on unblemished skin. Her smile would have been so luminescent that even fireflies would pale in comparison in the dark. She would have to worry only about the farm and its creatures. Creatures that would have surrounded her with life rather than looming death. Creatures that would offer her warmth and comfort. It is a childhood that she should have but does not.

The following day, Yǒngshí runs towards my table with papers in her hands.

“I helped at the local school today.”

“Oh?”

“The teacher allowed me to learn with the other children.” There is such excitement, such life, in her voice.

I imagine Yǒngshí walking to school each day with a small bag filled with papers flying outwards, carried away by the wind. She would have finished at the top of her class no doubt and have many friends with whom she would spend time. And she would occasionally arrive home late because of them, but her mother, full health, would not mind as long as she completed her school work. Yet, Yǒngshí does not go to school and instead stays at home, caring for her mother. Does she have a sibling? Perhaps two siblings? Has her mother found a new husband? Does she know who I am?

The rings of skin infected by Wormrot, though pink the previous day, have hints of weed-like green today on Yǒngshí’s sun kissed skin.

Yǒngshí does not come for the following two weeks. I wait, wait, wait with my tea untouched. Still, I do not see her shadow.

Today, Yǒngshí’s face is devoid of the same light from the past two days. Her lips press in a thin line like mine in my huà.

“Who did you help today?”

“I helped at the graves.”

She says nothing else and leaves me. Her eyes look distant, searching for something that is not there.

A day later, Yǒngshí returns. Her spirit looks revived, but her wounds continue to fester. She only has two weeks left.

Before she arrives at my table, I look at my scroll. The right eye I had erased is reappearing on the paper.

Will you extend it?

“I would like to return the time I have left.” Her voice firm, resolute.

I look up.

“Why?” I asked. “What did you learn at the graves?”

“It was never mine.” Time does not belong to anyone. It continues to move even without us. Forward or backward—it matters not.

The young child already understands the lesson of time, something that no one else could ever hope to understand—not me, not her father.

When she leaves my table. I dip my máobǐ in ink, whisper my name, and fill in my left iris when my spirit huà appears. Then I bite the tip of my finger and complete my blood oath. There will be no successor.

About the Author

Ai Jiang is a Chinese-Canadian writer and an immigrant from Fujian. She draws on cultures and landscapes of the lands she has walked for inspiration. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dark, Hobart Pulp, Prairie Fire, The Dread Machine, among others. Find her on Twitter (@AiJiang_) and online at aijiang.ca.