It is a small wooden tablet, 38 by 12 centimeters. Dusty, it smells of old incense and opium smoke. I brought it down to my home in Paris, from a street vendor in a small neighborhood flea market. Almost nothing, a few euros. But I did not choose it; it chose me. When I saw it, I immediately understood its history. I had the intuition. I knew. On a background of red paint, on the left could be seen a wedding lantern, and on the right a couple dancing on a bridge: a man with a flower in his hand; a woman with a mirror. At least, there was a woman – she’s gone. Only her silhouette is still present. It is as if she had decided to leave the wood. To disappear.
500 years earlier, under the Ming Dynasty, in Pingyao, lived a girl named Miao. On her wedding day, she danced with her husband on the bridge over the Grand Western Canal. She’d had some suspicions, but she didn’t want to think about such unpleasant things on the happiest day of her life – so what if she’d seen her husband, Fa, disappear into a cloud of smoke a few days ago, early in the morning, near his father’s farm, certainly was there an explanation, people can’t appear and disappear at will, and maybe it wasn’t him, after all, it was so early in the morning, one really couldn’t be sure. Her throat was beginning to get a little dry, so she focused again on the dance steps, on Fa’s handsome face, and on the bright and beautiful future they were sure to have.
A few days later, at the vegetable market, the crazy woman behind the vendors suddenly blocked her way to look intensely at her face, her eyes, her forehead. And as the scared Miao tried to move away from her, the woman held her hand and told her that there lives a spirit in her house. Everyone who could hear her laughed, except Miao. Her heart beat faster and faster, as she somehow managed to escape and make her way home. That walk from the neighborhood market to home was the longest journey taken by anyone ever in the world, at the end of which Miao felt her life was no longer hers and nothing in the world made any sense. She entered her room, and there was Fa. She couldn’t wait any longer, so she closed all the windows, locked the door, and asked him directly: “my dear love Fa, you’re the only man I’ve ever loved, the only man who I’ve kissed, the only man who’s ever touched my body, but are you a man at all, tell me, Fa, tell me the truth, are you a spirit, do you not exist?”
Fa was astonished, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “Miao, my love, what are you saying? Where do you hear such things? I am a man, of course, of flesh and bones. How can you doubt that, beloved Miao? It is, in fact, you who is not a woman. I’ve seen you disappear into a cloud of smoke, early one morning. I know the truth, my love.”
Miao stood there stunned. It couldn’t have been true, what Fa was telling her. It was him, he was the dead one, he was the one who’d disappeared. And he was now trying to convince her that she was a ghost. She could bear the fate of being married to a dead man, but she couldn’t tolerate being lied to. This was betrayal.
“Fa, if what you say is true, then I cannot die.”
“Miao, and if what you say is true, then I cannot die either.”
She didn’t believe a word her spirit-husband uttered, but in the middle of this madness, she couldn’t be sure. Between the two of them, who was the ghost? She just had to know, so she went into the kitchen, pulled a knife and attacked Fa. Nothing else was to be done. This was the only way to know the truth. Fa, absolutely mad with rage, pulled out the knife from his belly and inserted it inside Miao. After some screams and a lot of blood, Fa was dead. But Miao was still bleeding, the knife still inside her, keeping her alive. She didn’t know what to do. In desperation, she decided to jump into the canal, that winter evening. Eyes wide open in the muddy bottom, her body looked through underneath the boats loaded with goods.
And people forgot her name, her life, her face, except this little apprentice who, much later, carved the memory of Miao on a tiny piece of wood. 100 years after her death, the ghost of Miao had to choose between disappearing into a new life or being embodied in an inert material: it was in this small piece of wood, integrated into a marriage chest (sad irony). For years, she remained motionless, her eyes open on all the lives that passed before her: dramas, joys, surprises. Motionless? In reality, a trained eye could perceive small movements: very quietly, the Miao ghost was moving arms, its range and most of her dress… Only some paint flakes – very tiny red spots on the ground – could have betrayed this evanescent mobility.
But one day the box’s place was changed, and she found herself in front of an ominous piece of furniture: at the center of the console, there was a central panel where had chosen to live for eternity the ghost of her husband! In an instant, Miao flew: gathering all her (supernatural) forces, at night, she tore the wood. Paint, lacquer, gilding, relief patina: everything disappeared from her in an instant.
All? Except this story.
Saudamini Deo is a writer and photographer from India.
Philippe Charlier, MD, PhD, LittD, is a forensic practitioner and anthropologist. He works on representations of the human bodies, and rituals related to diseases and death. He loves words, and more.