Since Mother’s death, a changeling was all I could be. Father said so before he himself passed, “A real child, a real daughter, our daughter, would never cause death, would never bring death upon this family.”
Mother named me Yangguang—sunlight. But Father changed it to Yinying—shadow—for robbing his love of her light. But she told me I only brought her light since I was born. Who was lying? Perhaps I was misremembering. Mother passed when I turned three.
This was the last day I would spend at the house before the foster parents came to pick me up. In Father’s will, he left the house and all of his and Mother’s belongings to an aunt back in China I never met. She had a son who didn’t cause deaths. Not that we knew of, anyhow. Not that we knew anything about them in the first place. Not that Father cared. As long as it wasn’t me.
He even stayed behind to make sure I left.
I entered Father’s room, left vacant since his car accident last week and his rushed funeral two days ago. His ghost appeared the night they unplugged his life support, and it changed, misshaped, merged with the house when they lowered his coffin, threw dirt over the mahogany, left him to the silence beneath the soil.
The curtains curl in the face of Father with a gaping mouth that wouldn’t close—a scream stalled in time. But the white tendrils of sliced fabric that made up the unruly hair fluttered both towards me and out the window—a desire for freedom, but an inability to escape.
The ghost moved from Father’s room to mine and appeared each night when the clock struck midnight. A wake-up call while much of the world was asleep. A reaper’s whisper from the lips of a loved one.
But what frightened me most was not that the curtain ghost had the face of my father, but how it captured the tamed moustache he used to groom three times a day, the wild eyebrows that he would leave untouched, the hairs that came out of his ears, making him look more beast than man. What was the most terrifying of all was the voice that sounded so gentle, the one my father had used in his kindest moments in life—which were few and far in between, and when he forgot, for a moment, that he believed Mother’s death was traded for my birth—whispering to me in the dark with immobile lips: Die.
For two nights I hid under my covers with fingers in my ears, eyes squeezed so tight I could see white stars, until the stars took over the darkness, until it was looked as though my closed eyes were seeing yangguang rather than yinying.
But that night, rather than cowering under my blankets, I ripped them off me, and with thundering steps headed towards Father, floorboards creaking the entire way. My hands balled into fists, and I thrusted my right hand into the mouth, a swirling black hole of twisted fabric, looking for a tongue that wasn’t there, wanting nothing more than to sever it from the dark void.
I wasn’t meant to live, and my mother wasn’t meant to die. The doctors said it was a miracle that I didn’t pass with how long my heart paused before I was flung back to life, whereas Mother’s health dawdled after my arrival. Yet, even with both Mother and Father gone, this second chance was not one I was willing to part with, even if it meant that my father would continue to haunt and could never reunite with Mother’s ghost, who had long since moved on.
My fingers found the ghost’s tongue when my arm sunk elbow-deep into the void, catching Father by surprise. I pulled, and pulled, and pulled, until a single black tendril laced with pink freed itself from the curtain’s fabric. Taking the edge of the curtain that billowed like Mother’s hair on Father’s head, I tied the tip of the tongue to the white cotton, triple knotting for good measures. And as I was doing so, Father’s beast-like roars bounced across the room as he thrashed, strained, against me with futile efforts. Chained, he could no longer leave the house to find Mother. And he could no longer whisper vicious words in my ears. And he could no longer rob me of the life I deserved—not the cage of neglect he held me within since birth, insisting that I repent for the sins out of my control, but the life I knew Mother would want me to live, outside of my father’s suffocating clutches. Mother, too, was a victim. On her face was always a smile that quivered, flinched, before it steadied, even at the end.
In the morning, a knock on the door woke me, and I found myself asleep by the window with the sunlight warming my face, tangled in the white curtains that had ripped from the metal rods. Father was nowhere in sight. The curtains fell from my body like broken chains pooling by my ankles.
A click. The door opened.
“Are you ready?” I turned to see my foster father, a man who looked much like Father, holding out his hand.
I nodded. “Yes.”
Perhaps Father was the real changeling after all.
© 2023 Ai Jiang