The sad tale of a drowned ghost

The sad tale of a drowned ghost

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Short Story Gene Lin_L
Illustration: Sarene Chan

This story is about mistakes. Mistakes made by all those who turn their ears away from the warnings of others and thus suffer the consequences.

I was 16. It was a year marked by luck and regret.

Luck, in that I survived this incident unscarred, and regret that I didn't listen to the words of my dear friend.

I was a foolish person back then. It would be proven that my stubborn and uncompromising mind was destined to bring me misfortune. But had it not been so, I would not be able to tell you the story of that one particular summer: the summer I encountered one of the most unusual incidents of my life.

That year saw one of the hottest summers in the history of Hong Kong. I vividly remember it.

My mother was ill and in hospital and my father had to leave for a business trip that would last several months.

As I was running out of ways to deal with the inevitable boredom ahead of me during the holidays, I decided to spend the summer with my friend Tony at his grandfather's house in the countryside. There we would be free from any constraints and could spend as long as we liked on the beach.

My story starts in a temple.

At the centre of the village there is an ancient-looking temple which had been aged by the weather and the blustery sea wind. It was empty except for two crudely-carved stone statues of a bride and a groom, dressed in the scarlet clothing of a Chinese wedding.

The villagers named the temple Duan Qing Miao, which translates as the "Temple of Severed Love".

The story behind the temple is that about 40 years ago a pair of lovers from Shenzhen decided to take on the dangerous task of escaping from China to Hong Kong. The girl chose to travel across the border by land and the boy would swim across the bay.

His friends urged him to go with her, but he had grown up next to the sea and preferred to take his chances in the water rather than face the soldiers' guns. The couple promised to reunite once they had both crossed the border.

Despite the fact that many illegal immigrants were shot while making the crossing, the girl escaped this terrible fate.

She ran for days until she arrived at the village where she was supposed to meet the boy. But days and weeks went by, and the boy never appeared.

The girl faithfully waited for her love right up to the day she contracted a deadly disease and suffered an untimely death.

The boy, who died in the ocean, became a "drowned ghost" in Chinese legend - one that would eternally search for souls to take his place of suffering by snatching them into the depths of the sea and killing them.

Meanwhile, the villagers - saddened, and out of pity - built a temple for the lovers so that, following their unfortunate deaths, they could be reunited and their severed love never forgotten.

Perhaps it was sheer coincidence, but by either chance or fate, it was August when Tony and I visited the village. For those unfamiliar with Chinese folklore, August is roughly the time when the "door to the afterlife" is opened to our world.

At this time, the souls of the dead are allowed to come back and roam in our realm. It is believed that the spirits are particularly powerful during this period and people leave food at their front gates to appease them. The ghost of the boy in the Temple of Severed Love would be one such apparition, and the villagers wouldn't give him the satisfaction of taking any victims that year.

I was deeply amused by the story, for I was convinced that such folk tales were merely silly legends used to scare little children. Growing up around superstitions, I had learned that often their educational purpose was greater than their accuracy. They were mostly moral lessons to stop children from fooling around. The drowned ghosts are probably nothing more than a way to keep toddlers out of deep waters.

"A storm is coming," Tony's grandfather said calmly.

His voice was shallow and rough and his face was hard as stone. I could see time had weathered him, like the rocks along the coast.

"The drowned ghost will be lurking and we should be prepared," he said, focusing his eyes on the bright, clear blue sky.

"You're kidding, right?" I abruptly replied. He responded with an instant look of disapproval.

"The drowned ghost is not to be joked about, young man," the old man warned me, as he pressed his hands to pay respect to the lovers' spirits.

That evening, Tony and I messed about on the beach. It was a time when life was at its finest. We were free of any earthly worries and were just living in the now.

"We should go," Tony said after a while, as the sun sank slowly below the horizon. "Grandpa said a storm is coming and we shouldn't stay here any longer."

I casually looked up at the sky that was coloured by the sunset; aside from its fabulous transition of colour between day and night, I saw no deadly storms.

"I want to stay a while longer," I said assertively.

"I don't care what your grandfather said, there is no storm coming today."

"But there are drowned ghosts in the water," Tony replied in a serious tone. It was clear he wasn't joking.

I didn't know if my logic had the better of my judgment, but the more I thought about what Tony believed, the more an urge to express my rebellious nature built up within me.

"Why don't you stop, just for once, believing every stupid story you hear?" I challenged him.

There was an unintentional hostility and I realised I had crossed a very delicate line.

"Suit yourself," Tony replied coldly and turned and walked away.

For some time I couldn't stop thinking about the incident and decided to apologise to Tony later on. But gradually I tossed the thought out of my head and swam further and further from the shore, into the oblivion of the peaceful ocean.

After a while I realised I must have lost track of time because the sky seemed to be turning dark unexpectedly. I could sense the waves growing stronger and the wind blowing faster.

Although I could still see the land I had swum from just moments ago, I found it challenging as I tried to swim back. Every stroke seemed to be taking me further from land and every kick of my leg pushed me deeper into the sea. Just when a small part of me was starting to panic, I realised what really was coming towards me.

Right above me, a swarm of black clouds had engulfed the once crystal-clear sky, like a wild fire spreading through a forest.

The storm had arrived; it was too late.

I could feel raindrops falling. They were like bullets stinging my skin. The pouring rain obscured my vision and I soon lost my sense of direction. I was surrounded by howling wind and thunder, and each wave seemed intended to devour me, as I was pushed further and further into the ocean.

I swallowed gallons of salty seawater, and as I tried to shout for help, I knew there was no chance anyone would hear me. It was hopeless and I was in a war zone of nature. And then, I drowned.

Everything seemed to stop existing at that moment, but just when I was wondering if it was a nightmare, I felt an unbearable sensation in my chest. It was so powerful, as though my lungs were about to rupture. I was suffocating. I kicked and waved my limbs as hard as I could, and suddenly, a force got hold of me and pulled me sharply upwards. I could breathe again!

It was Tony's grandfather who saved me.

I was told later that after Tony noticed I wasn't coming back, his grandfather immediately set sail to search for me. I was fortunate enough to be rescued and people told me it was a miracle I had survived - and, of course, I escaped from the hand of the drowned ghost.

"Guess the drowned ghost is real after all. I should have listened to you," I told Tony's grandfather as we brought our incense to the Temple of Severed Love the following day.

"So you believe it's true?" he asked, curious.

"Well, better safe than sorry, right?" I humbly replied.

There was a short silence.

"What if I tell you there is no drowned ghost?" the old man responded. "What if I tell you the boy never drowned?"

I was confused; I did not know what to say and waited for him to continue.

"What if I tell you the boy never drowned and that he arrived on shore a few days after the girl died? Perhaps he never revealed his true identity to anyone because he was afraid of being caught by the Immigration Bureau."

Tony's grandfather carried on with his story, and his tone changed slightly.

"What if he eventually started a family of his own and ..." he turned and looked at me with a stony face, "... many years later his grandson brought a stubborn friend who almost drowned while trying to swim in a thunderstorm and he had to go save him?"

I stood there, speechless, as my mind tried to process what I'd just heard. There was no rational way to prove it, but why was he telling me this?

"I should have listened to my friend, you know," the old man said as he turned to look sorrowfully at the statues of the lovers. "I could have taken the mountain route, but I was so sure I could swim. But it took longer than expected; too long."

As Tony's grandfather pondered his past misfortune, I turned away for some reason and, although I could not see it, I certainly heard the drowned ghost weeping.

This story is about mistakes. Mistakes made by two fools who both refused to listen to their wise friends, and thus suffered the consequences.


Read the other entries to our 2012 Summer Story competition.

- The winning story, Eyes of the Departed, by 16 year old Lorenzo Chim
- Don't Mess with the Old by 13 year old Justin Yu
- I Should Have Listened to My Friends by 13 year old Charlotte Chan
- All's Fair in Life and War by 15 year old Brandon Mok
- Dreams of fame turn to tragedy by 15 year old Chaang Vi Ka
- A love to remain forever unspoken by 15 year old Lorraine Ho
- A prank goes out of control by 8 year old Anoushka Hemnani
- It will be spring by the time you awake by 15 year old Emily Archibald

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