The first thing he feels after being brought back to life are the gentle strokes of wispy fingers trying to touch him. They clamor around his body—weak voices in his ear imploring him to describe every delicious detail of what he can see and feel, when he breaks through the surface of the world gasping and sputtering for air.
There’s a mustiness on his tongue that reminds him of his breath in the morning. Specters aren’t the only things crowded around him. The street is made tightly compact by a long line of wooden shops, and he vaguely recognizes his hometown, Sujing. Above him, the sky is dark with the distant beating of starling wings.
As the boy makes way to his feet, the wind streaks by him, blowing away a few of the weaker spirits clinging on to him with little whimpers of protest. He runs to the first home he sees, pounding in the door and shouting for help. Hours go by him as he stumbles down the streets to find something alive. It’s not until the last crowd of starlings leaves that his screams are silenced with a snip as he evaporates out of existence.
The rules of the Starling Migration are simple. In September, they make their way across the region, taking the duration of a full day to completely pass through; even with the sun in full rise, the sky is eclipsed black by birds.
During this time, the townspeople are forbidden from treading into the streets. After all, ghosts that awake during the migration aren’t people. They are not the leftover fragments of a human when it was alive. Most of them are starving like dogs, pressing up against the planks over the windows and whining about being left alone. In post-migration mornings, wives are always grumbling about the fingerprints they have to scrub from their walls. Ghost are a nuisance, plain and simple. There is no living person in Sujing who is stupid enough to open their arms to a ghost; least of all, their doors.
The third time the boy is resurrected, his feet are nearly burned to blisters. He had not seen the careful mound of salt the owners here had lined around their house. Through his pain, he hears the trickling of water, and he goes to the back of the home to find a pool of floating lily pads and stones. When he dips his feet into the slightly shimmering water, ink lips dart out to follow him like koi fish searching for food. He registers their cold teeth pinching his skin until he kicks out, and they dissolve into smoke.
No wonder the townspeople have boarded up their windowsills from the ghosts. Ghosts don’t remember anything, and they’re always hungry. Sometimes, when the boy sits on the ground for too long, they gather around him, the older ones shaped like long oversized slugs with bright pinpricks of light for their eyes. Although the feeling of their skin against him is distant, being in contact with them gives him such a sense of unease that it wards him away.
If not humans, and not ghosts, who does he have left? Who had claimed him when he alive?
He hears footprints padding on the grass before he sees her.
“What are you doing in my garden?”
He can barely suppress his rush of adrenalines as a voice belonging to a faceless stranger from his past life comes streaking past his ears:
Whether she is a witch or not, I recommend not jumping when you see her. Women, especially ugly ones, don’t like to be reminded of how they look.
The boy looks up into the face of Sujing’s fox witch. Disregarding the twisted growth of her nails, the fox witch’s body is human enough. It is her face, thin and narrow, alongside dark, liquid eyes that angle into a fox’s slit that is unsettling. Like the ghosts in the pool, her mouth is outlined in cherry black, but when she grins, her teeth contrast that color with a crooked slash of white.
He might not remember much about his life before being dead, but he does know what a witch is and the potions this one sells to his town. Her den lies by the black market, nearly touching the edges of Nanwei Forest where few go.
“Don’t put your feet in the pond,” the fox witch chides him. “It’s not good for my fish.”
Without waiting for his reply, she picks up a lily from its pad, rubbing the petals between her index finger and her thumb. Golden sand crumbs tumble into the water for the ghosts to eat while the boy tries to remember what a conversation is like when he doesn’t have to speak to a wooden door’s face.
“Can I come inside with you?” he finally asks.
He shrinks back at the sharp, rasping bark of her laugh. “Was the salt not enough of a clue?” she says. “Go away, ghost boy. I don’t need the stink of you rotting up my home.”
Rubbing the last of the crumbs from her fingertips, she goes back to her home and shuts the door behind her with a click.
During the intervals after the migration kills him, the ghost boy does not have dreams spanning out of his reach, taunting him with clues of when he was alive. No, that would imply that he still had business clinging to his past personhood, and there is nothing sadder than a ghost who can’t face the reality of his death.
So, after the starlings leave Sujing, the ghost boy passes into nothing.
Then, an abrupt shove into consciousness.
The fox witch squints down at him from the steps of her wooden porch. She’s chewing something in the corner of her mouth and when she speaks; thin black strands push out from between her lips, twitching like spider legs. “Back again?”
She takes one of the squirming legs out of her mouth and breaks it in half. “I think being dead has affected your mind. You have the wrong impression of my age.”
The ghost boy doesn’t say anything for a bit, not knowing which part of her reply pummels him more. Speaking with her is only slightly less painful than haunting around the town’s cracks and corners.
“If you know magic,” he says slowly, “perhaps you can bring me back.” He tries to phrase the words carefully so not too much of his hope leaks out. “And then you will not have to trouble yourself with seeing my face anymore.”
She sighs. “I’m a witch. Not a necromancer. If I could bring you back among the living, I doubt there would be any ghosts left in Sujing.”
He is not as resistant of failure as he thinks, and he flinches back from the certainty in her voice.
“Then I’ll take your word for it,” he says meekly. “There’s nowhere else for me.”
After all, being here in her garden is the closest he has come to belonging somewhere. He has already lost everything through dying. In staying here, he has someone consistent, who will look him in the eyes when he speaks to her.
The boy knows he’s been dead for seven years, but the time awake that he’s had to come to terms with it—a week!—is not nearly enough. It does no one any good to dwell, dead or living, but when he is alone, he spends a lot of his time wondering: was a funeral held under his name? More than anything, he aches for proof that there is someone who grieved for him, because otherwise, what point was there in him ever existing? Other times he stares at the stepping stones of the pool and imagines breaking his head open to unspool what little memories of himself he has left.
At the end of the fox witch’s garden, there is a miniature Shinto shrine. The boy is surprised by the rice cake under it. He did not think a witch would make offerings to a kami. He picks up the cake, turning it around in his hands, not because he wants to eat it, but because he’s trying to remember the feelings of sinking his teeth into something and tasting it.
“It’s bad luck to steal a god’s offering,” the fox witch says from behind him.
He puts the rice cake back under the shrine quickly. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I only wanted to look at it.”
She doesn’t reply immediately. She lays her palm out in front of her, slowly extending her index finger upward. At the same time near the ghost boy’s feet, the grass twines around itself as if invisible hands are weaving it into the shape of a cup. Green tea wells up inside it. “A rice cake would be too complicated for a ghost,” the witch says.
In his eagerness, he forgets to thank her for the tea. He wraps his fingers around the grass cup and drinks until there’s nothing left. Even in his mouth all at once, the taste is distant. It takes a long time of concentration until he can tell that the flavor on his tongue was more than water, and by then, it is already gone.
There are some days where the fox witch does not come out of her house at all. During these days when the boy grows tired of waiting for her, he wanders around Sujing where ghosts emerge from their hiding corners and fall over each other’s bodies, crawling after him. Sometimes, the ghost boy, growing tired of their high keen whining, turns around and claps his hands hard together to frighten them away.
Most of the time, though, even without her presence, he likes to sit in the peace of her garden. The ghosts that live in the pond are as quiet as fish. The most excitement that occurs is when one resembling a long black tube crawls out of the pool. It sits there, its midsection pulsating back and forth, back and forth, until it vomits soundlessly into the grass. When it is done, it pushes its heavy body back into the water.
The boy goes to examine the contents of the spew and he finds a mass of gnarled cockroaches, still glistening slightly from the leftover bile of the pond ghost.
“Not everyone is born a witch.”
This is what the fox witch tells him when he asks about her magic. She tells him about coming into this world first as a peasant girl. One day while she was crying by the river because the tree bark was too frozen for her to eat, the spirit came to her, in a fox’s form, offering her its magic in exchange her life and loyalty. He listens with bated breath, partially because this is a story no one will ever tell him again, and mostly because he is happy that she thinks of him as important enough to tell things about herself to.
“Were you afraid?” he says.
“No,” she replies. “It was more that I didn’t want to be hungry anymore.”
The first human the ghost boy sees after dying is a woman dressed in a muted red kimono with a white obi around the middle of her waist. He peeks at her around the corner of the fox witch’s house. Her black hair is tied into a bun with a wooden prong holding little cloth cherry blossoms that dangle down the side of her head. She goes past the salt lines in tiny, graceful steps and knocks on the door.
He hears it swing open and the witch’s voice.
“It’s bold of you to come during the migration.”
A high, catty laugh from the woman. “Well, time is money and no men come to the bathhouse while the starlings are here. I need our usual safety.”
The yearning to be near a warm body shears all the ghost boy’s willpower to ribbons. He feels his body move forward like there is a string pulling at his belly.
Hearing his footsteps, the woman looks at him with mild surprise. “You have an apprentice?”
The fox witch purses her lips. She barely spares him a passing glance when she tells the woman, “Wait here.”
When she is gone, the ghost boy focuses on finding the woman’s eyes through the starling-made darkness. This is a word that may not work with the witch, but he tries it with her, “What are you here for, oneesan?”
“My name is Rika.” He feels her drawing closer to him. The cold tips on her fingernails skim around his neck. He’s too stunned to react. As far as he is concerned, this is his first time being touched by someone. The frenzy of ghost hands groping him does not count. He feels something like her breath on his face. “If you could ever do me a favor of slipping a few extra batches of my order under her nose, I can return you a different kind of pleasure.”
“I’m not her apprentice,” the ghost boy replies. It’s only slightly better than saying, I’m dead.
Rika’s raises her hand up, lightning quick, to clutch him by his chin. Her nails dig into his ghost skin, hard enough that he feels the inside of his cheek squeeze against his teeth but not enough to leave a mark.
“You’re just a baby,” she says, suddenly pulling back. Her voice turns simpering sweet, on the verge of being resentful. “Of course, you wouldn’t need a yuna. There must be all kinds of girls at school who open their legs for you—ones that you won’t have to pay a couple pretty yen for.”
His wonder fades, and instead he is filled with an uncomfortable squirming in his stomach. “Does the fox witch charge you that much for her magic?”
“I don’t know if I would place her on a pedestal—mixing together acacia and honey to rub inside your vagina is hardly supernatural.”
He startles back. “How can you say that with what she can do to you?”
Through the darkness, he makes out the cold slants of her eyes. Rika laughs in his face. “You really aren’t her apprentice. The fox witch can’t hurt anyone. Not as long as she is as dead as the rest of those things on the street.”
After Rika leaves, the fox witch doesn’t say anything to him. He presses his toes forward until they’re an inch away from the salt she’s sprinkled to separate herself from things like him. The witch sits down on the steps of her porch and blows out softly between her lips as if she is trying to whistle but without the sound.
“I don’t understand,” he whispers. “How long have you been dead?”
She does not meet his gaze so long that the boy is afraid that he has become his alias, a transparent, ghostly nothing. “Do you know what my name is?” she finally asks him.
He opens his mouth, only for air to gape out.
“I don’t either. After I wrote my name in a contract with the fox, it sealed it up. It took everything I had and sucked it dry.”
The boy shakes his head. He has already heard this story once. There are more important things now. “If you are dead, do you disappear like me after the starlings leave?”
She looks in his eyes, then to the hands in her lap, then back to him again. “No,” she replies. “Just like the magic of the starlings is powerful enough to bring you back, the fox inside me keeps my spirit tethered here.”
It shouldn’t matter what her answer is. None of it has anything to do with his situation, or him, but knowing this does mean he can change how he feels. Unable to hold his temper in check anymore, he slams his hand onto his chest and shouts, “It’s the same as if you’re alive then. I have nothing about myself!”
His anger leaves him as his voice echoes back at him. Behind her house, he hears the soft lapping of the pond ghosts swimming over each other.
When the fox witch finally speaks, she is very quiet. “I can’t bring you back to life, but there is one thing. I can show you your grave. This is the last thing I will do for you.”
Before he can react, a spool of milky white seeps from underneath her fingernails. At the same time, her body concaves inward like a dry husk, as if she is a fruit being juiced. A fox emerges out of the white, its coat a slight shimmer in the darkness. It stares at the boy through blind eyes and begins to pad out of the garden. There is no sound or rustle made from its paws meeting the ground.
The boy hurries to follow the fox, fighting the way his skin turns in on itself as he goes into Nanwei Forest. It is ghosts who have found peace in death who come to these grounds. Their mutual loneliness glues together, twisting them into imitations of the living like a tree made from black limbs. When wind sweeps through, the bones in their hands give the same sound as rattling a hollowed chime.
From the trees, a few slinking wisps descend from the bark to touch the fox. Brief contact against it sends them into a howling mess as they scatter backwards into the safety of their clan.
When they finally come to the cemetery inside Nanwei, the ghost boy thinks too late now that of course this is where Sujing would bury its corpses. Nanwei Forest skirts just outside of the town and is safe distance from the dead.
He treads through each individual grave carefully. When he finally finds his name painted in black on wood, he laughs so hard that his stomach hurts. Kobayashi Aoku. It means open blue sky.
At the same time, the pang in his stomach turns more into a prickle of discomfort—first like pins and needles and then turning into a cold intrusion against his guts. He tumbles on the ground, retching as he realizes the fox is gone. Something moves in a lump under his skin, but as he makes to grab it, it slips away from his fingertips, burrowing through him like a mole.
Even more than the sensation of it inside of him, he feels something coming onward like a headache. The world warps into a blur around him. It’s the same sensation he gets after the starlings leave and his time in the world has expired.
There’s a dislocation—
Aoku’s feet are back on Sujing’s sidewalk. The day he died, he had been walking back home alone from a party. New Year night was the most elaborately celebrated holiday in his town, and Aoku had chosen to celebrate it in the shrieking laughter of his friends rather than with his family. In between the jostling of the party, he had lost track of how many glasses of soju he had taken.
Now stumbling back home, drunk-cloudy and wavering, he is worried about his mother and what she will say after she sees him. She has always been the type to worry about his well-being, even with things like, “—but, oh, are you sure you want to be his friend? He seems too much like a troublemaker for you, you’ve always been so kind, just look at how you take care of your oneesan, it’s very important now that you make good choices for your life because I don’t want you to live in this town forever like we did, and look, when you make the effort to try in school you’re even smarter than your papa is. Let’s try to live a good life, let’s be happy—”
He grows tired of remembering her nagging and he lies on a nearby bench, so he can fall asleep and be away from her voice. After, there are no outside forces or swiveling mystery. Sometime during the night when his body tried to rid itself of the alcohol in his stomach, he choked on his own vomit, of all stupid ways to bring on eternal earthly decay.
When Aoku wakes up, he is alone. There are no moving mounds under his skin, and the fall breeze is a gentle, cooling caress around him. Up above him, still, birds. He can’t tell if another year has passed, let alone if his death this time was an annual occurrence or the remembrance of one.
He wraps his arms around himself and makes himself comfortable on the bump of his grave. There, he waits for the last cloud of starlings to leave Sujing, wishing he had more time; wishing for real stars.