The Temple Fire

Elder Sister had a smooth river rock forehead, perfectly rounded and sleek.   She had pointed ears like a fox.  The women in our mountain village were skilled seamstresses and made their own clothes, but Elder Sister outshone them all.  Her black robes were adorned with the brightest reds and greens.  Her winter leg-wraps were most special because she embroidered her favorite spirits, the fox and beetle spirits, with silver thread.  We were not wealthy, but she wore silver necklaces even when it was not Spring Festival.  She told me that as Eldest Daughter of the village priest, she must maintain face, to show the villagers how Father had raised a dignified family outside of the temple.  Mother and Father barely looked at me when Elder Sister was in the same room.  You could not blame them. Elder Sister shone so brightly. 

I was always an avid storyteller, but in those winter months during Elder Sister’s illness, I was especially dedicated.   My stories filled Elder Sister’s dreams with color and animals and magic.  The dreams stirred her; she giggled, her teeth chattered, and she cursed.  Mother clucked her tongue, displeased at the foul language, and I marveled at how much she sounded like a woodpecker.  She even looked like one when her ashy hair was wound into a tight bun, and when her beady eyes darted around Elder Sister’s room, looking for secret hiding places that the illness might hide.  Her eyes were eagle sharp, and she would protect us, I knew.  They would glow yellow, reflecting the dim bedside candle which she kept burning day and night.  Mother’s anxious bird sounds, the perpetual darkness, and the cursing, intensified my feelings of dread, of isolation.

Last night, when I kneeled at the edge of Elder Sister’s bed, I noted how her throat burbled like a dying fish while she slept.   I whispered into her ear, “I need you. Please listen to my story.”  But Mother, who never left Elder Sister’s side, heard me and shooed me from the room.  Fumbling around the pitch black house, I was frightened; left to wander in a cold river, alone.  I felt a heavy pull on my limbs, a river rock filled my stomach, and ice pierced my skin.  To keep myself company, I cursed aloud at Mother, the dark, and the cold—to all of the wickedness that kept me from Elder Sister. 

Later that night, I lay awake; silver foxes told me what to do.  They said that Elder Sister was like a silver carp, floating and lost in dark waters.  Without sunlight, she could not see me or hear my stories; she was adrift in colorless dreams and she would die.   I knew right then that I needed to heal her.  Without Elder Sister, I had no stories to tell because there was no one to listen.  Fire-eating beetles would help me if I fed them, the silver foxes said, their blazing tongues could push the sun into the sky and morning would come. 

Father kept a special room for his sacred papers and cloth scrolls—a room that I was forbidden from entering.  While the house slumbered, I found the papers and drew over the sacred symbols with my charcoal stick.  I drew Elder Sister’s silk dress, made heavy with black embroidery of foxes and beetles—luminous silver chains wound tight around her neck.  I drew Father in priest robes and riding atop a demon dog, and Mother wearing a demon head.  I rode with Father as we hunted for my demon mother.  Elder Sister’s silver lighted the way. 

Father left the house at sunrise to comfort a family whose baby had not survived the same sickness that plagued Elder Sister.  He asked me to come along even though he knew that I never touched the dead.  But I could not go.  I believed their spirit would enter my dreams and haunt my stories forever. 

When he left, the silver foxes nipped at my legs. It was time. “Now. Hurry,” they said.  I bounded out of the house with my drawings and Father’s sacred cloth scrolls stuffed inside of my robes.   My eyes glimpsed left then right because I was fearful that, at any time, Father might pop out from behind the fragrant cinnamon trees surrounding our house, and stop me.  I cut into the forest, scuttling in a low, crouching squat in the direction of the temple.  Would Elder Sister laugh if she saw how I teetered like an unstable Chinese shore crab?  I headed north toward the river and prayed that in crossing the bridge, which was fully in the open, I would not be caught. 

I carefully counted my steps as I picked my way up the temple’s stone pathway.  Once inside, I placed my heavy bundle at the feet of the wooden Kwan Yin statue, Father’s favorite goddess.  I jammed a burning incense stick into the center of my holy paper shrine, fell to my knees and prayed that the silver foxes were right and that fire-eating beetles would bring the sun. 

~

The fire started slowly and I watched it from up close.  When the fire-eating beetles appeared at last, they danced for me in the scented flames.  I got up and threw my arms wide, twirled and stomped my feet with abandonment.  Soon the floor began to vibrate, the walls shook as if made of twigs, and smoke pushed out all of the air.  Tall flames leapt up towards the temple spire, and Kwan Yin crumpled to her knees; her necklace of fire shone even more brightly than Elder Sister’s many silver chains. I stayed until the fire’s roar became too much and the great noise pushed me outside. 

When the villagers came with their buckets of water, they did not see me crouched in the shadow of a nearby tree because I was black with soot.  Father, fully dressed in his priest robes, was the first of my family to arrive.  From my hiding place, I watched him start towards the line of villagers who were passing buckets back and forth, when he stopped abruptly mid stride.  I wondered if he had, for one guilty moment, considered how he could fight the fire without ruining his robes.  Mother and Elder Sister arrived soon after, moving slowly up the path. Elder Sister’s forehead glistened with a pale sweat, and she stepped carefully as if she did not trust her legs to keep her up.  I felt powerful seeing her there.  It was I who had fed the fire-eating beetles, I made morning come, and it was I who stirred Elder Sister from her colorless dreams.  She leaned on Mother for support, and I wondered if she knew what I had done for her.  I wondered if she had looked over at my empty bed when Mother shook her awake, whether she worried because I was not there.  I wondered if Mother remembered me at all. 

When the fire-eating beetles had finished feeding, they hurled the sun into the sky where it perched unsteadily atop Mount Luohan, burning, burning. I lost my hiding place in the shadows.  But when the winter frost met the sun and the fire’s heat, a rancid fog grew and I was hidden once more.  Villagers, one by one, dropped out of the fight to save our temple, no longer able to work in the stifling haze.  I trembled with excitement as I waited impatiently for the fog to clear so that my weary audience would turn their attention to me. 

Father, Mother, and Elder Sister had not moved since they arrived.  When one villager stumbled in front of them and splashed water all over, Mother flinched but did not step aside.  Father looked like he would be sick.  He tried to brush the mud splatters from his robes, but even from where I stood, I could see that the fabric was hopelessly stained.  Elder Sister stood perfectly still.  Dreamy eyed, she too watched Father.  Her haunting gaze looked almost as if she believed she had never woken up and was actually inside of a nightmare.  She began shivering, though she stood just feet from the flames, and I wondered if she was cold. 

The silver foxes nudged me forward.  I walked out from the shelter of the cinnamon tree and, for the first time since the fire started, stood straight.  I lifted my arms to the heavens and in my powerful new storyteller voice, praised the silver foxes and fire-eating beetles. 

“Thank you,” I said.  “You helped me bring the sun and now I have healed my sister.” 

The villagers circled around me and some wept at my words.  I turned and looked expectantly at my family.  Look at me, I begged silently.  I wanted them to see how powerful I had become.  Please, please look at me.  But they remained motionless, still facing the burning temple.  I ached with loneliness. 

I walked over and clutched Elder Sister’s trembling hand.  The curved stone path that had led me to the temple’s entrance was destroyed so that small rock islands jutted out of a river of ash.  Kwan Yin was nothing more than a blackened stump of charcoal that ended right at our ankles.  My drawings, of course, had been eaten by the voracious beetle spirits, and I knew that I would never find them.  The temple spire, which once reached as high as the treetops, was gone.  I looked up at the empty place in the sky where it used to be and felt sad that I could not remember exactly what it looked like.  I could not remember what animal spirits our ancestors had carved into the wood; whether they had included the fox spirit or fire-eating beetles.  I closed my eyes for a long time so that I could see it as I wanted.  Elder Sister leaned into my ear and said, in a hoarse whisper, that it was better this way.  If I closed my eyes, I could not see how the villagers looked at me—I could not see how Father and Mother would not.

 

 

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