a prose piece by Lily Shen
Xie’er dies on a Wednesday.
She had woken up that morning, thrown off the stained blanket and left the motel to go for a run. For about a week, she’d known that it was time, soon. That morning, the trees had whispered to her and, the crows had stayed closer than normal to the trail she followed. She had almost expected her headaches to return like vicious knives.
Now, she watches the landscape pass by. The same perspective as always from her shotgun vantage point. It’s all the same; the world keeps turning as if Ren Xie’er did not just bite a chainsaw in an abandoned outlaw cabin. The wheat still sways in the wind, the cables span languid and steady across the fields, the birds chirp and their black Chevrolet hums, and hums and hums ever on.
Xie’er can’t figure out whether she’s bound to her rotting flesh, her battered bones strewn among the empty cans in the trunks, or if she’s bound to this battered, beaten, more-than-second-hand car. The leather of the seats, the rattling of the vents, the carvings in the walls. Or maybe it’s Tian. It’s probably Tian - little brother Tian, in death as well as in life.
The motor of the Chevy howls and growls and devours gravel like a hound its prey, but it is still quiet. Tian has not turned on any music since he packed up all of the bits and pieces that were once his sister, packed them up the same way he packed up all their belongings, duffel slung across his shoulder to depart to another motel, seventy-five miles from Nowhere.
Xie’er had seen ghosts before, but being one was different. She can feel the void tugging on her non-existent blood, if it’s Heaven, or Hell or Nothingness calling her, she doesn’t know. After fifteen years on the American highways, hunting for dreams and peace and mangled souls and everything that came in between, Xie’er knew she was more tethered to this place in death than in life. If she’d known that all it took to stop the feeling of bugs crawling through her veins was to be torn limb from limb, she thinks she’d have tried it herself. Except of course she wouldn’t have, because Tian.
Tian, who sits beside her the same as always, who is her focus point, the only thing keeping her tied to reality––only literally now. He stares straight ahead, jaws clenched, eyes dry. Xie’er wonders if he can feel his sister next to him. Oh, she would be so mad, that righteous anger that always made Xie’er want to break his nose, punch the rearview mirror shredded. The world may have forgotten, but Xie’er would always remember–– Tian was a righteous man. Holy, sacred, blessed. Weathered by the wind and the lies of an illuminated future in a foreign havenland, but unflinching and unwavering. With one foot on the other side, Xie’er can see it more than ever, the light clinging to her brother’s every cell. It doesn’t make her feel sick now. There’s nothing coursing through her veins anymore. Not her blood, not her anger. She’s just Xie’er.
Tian’s fighting, still. He’s never been one to give up without a fight but , and he’s has always fought been one to fight with heart and fists, busted lips and scraped raw knees, crawling towards his goal with anything in hand. Tian’s fights always got messy. Xie’er knows - has known for too long that she’s the same.
But this time, Xie’er doesn’t yell. She doesn’t cry. She doesn’t sob into Tian’s face that there is no home here, doesn’t wish they had never crossed land and ocean and doesn’t feel the afterburn of guilt for thinking it. None of it matters now. Tian will join her soon, and they both know it.
Tian goes through the motions. He had gotten a motel room next to a neon painted diner the first night of sleep he got, after Xie’er. He’d asked for a double and Xie’er chuckled to herself as Tian went inside. She hadn’t followed, and Tian hadn’t slept in a motel since.
Now he simply pulls up in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and lays down in the back seat, closer to Xie’er. Tian talks as if she’s still there, and also as if he’s talking to himself. “We should stop for gas later, Xie,” and “Alright, let’s crash,.” Xie’er answers him every time and he answers back. She knows Tian can’t hear her, is just rehashing conversations they’ve had countless times before. It’s nice though. Feels normal.
Wires persist across the cloudless sky, the open road unravels, the days go on. Tian becomes desperate. He’s taken to driving drunk. Xie’er knows that Tian will be with her soon enough, but she’d rather not have it be because Tian wrapped himself around a tree. The car deserves better. He deserves better. The light is still shining out of him, as it always will, but now there’s dark under it and Xie’er feels sick again. She doesn’t want to see this, but she feels she has to. So she starts to leave the car. Stands next to Tian as he searches through scattered town after scattered town, sits in the corner hugging her knees as he smashes his fists into the mirror of a gas station bathroom again, and again, and again. It doesn’t make Xie’er angry this time. Feeling anything has become so hard, and it’s because she knows she’s not supposed to be here anymore - never supposed to be here at all. She knows, and yet. And yet.
The next time they stop, it’s on the shoulder of a highway, a little trail leading off into the fields and towards an old church barely visible in the darkness of night. Xie’er knows that this is it. Crows sit in the wheats, staring at her staring off into the distance, towards a church off in the woods. None of them move and neither do Tian or Xie’er.
She starts to feel it. Xie’er looks up at the starry sky and lets her life play before her eyes. She was made of memories.
Their mother’s face, their father’s arms. Xie’er wondered whether they’d be waiting for her and her brother, or if they’d be in a different heaven now - the heaven people went to, back home. Maybe, she wondered, she and Tian would spend the rest of time waiting in line outside the American heaven instead. Xie’er closed her eyes.
I’m sorry, mama.
Tian takes one last look at the passenger seat, and steps outside the car door. Xie’er opens her eyes and feels her reality flicker. A second later, she appears next to him.
Her brother props up the trunk. He stares inside a couple of seconds, and so does Xie’er. She feels no attachment to her body. Just a collection of guts and bones and viscera, no different to what it had been when she was still whole and running around.
The next few steps are mechanical. Tian pulls out a canister of gasoline and empties it over the Chevy. He fishes around a while and slides to the ground, back against the car, matchbox in hand, closes his eyes when Xie’er sits down next to him. Tian makes no sign of noticing her presence, but she’s sure he knows she is still here. Unable to see her, but he knows.
Her brother, the anchor of her soul, the centre of her world, opens his eyes, looks up to the sky, then fumbles with the box. He drops it in his lap a couple of times. Xie’er Sam can see the gaping wound in his heart now, the glistening blood beneath shreds of skin and bone and years of holding back.
Finally, he gets a hold of a match, tosses the box aside and holds it up in front of his face. When Xie’er lights it up, Tian laughs. The sound of it is pained and gentle, how Xie’er had heard it a thousand times before.
Seconds before the fire reaches the tank, Tian finally looks at her - really looks at her.
Xie’er is running through the woods. Not away from anything, just running. The Liangshan sun is beating down on her, the Ya’an trees whisper and the sound of water rustles in the wind. The sounds, the smells, just her and her beating pulse. In Moments like this, she feels grounded, at peace. She feels Present and connected in a way she never is otherwise.
She stumbles out onto the familiar stretch of woodland path. A raindrop lands gently in her hair - to her right, Xie’er hears the familiar sound of footsteps on fresh leaves. She blinks and sees Tian, whole and beautiful. No lines across his features, skin not bubbling with heat.
“Let’s go home, Xie.”
Cover Photo Source: Drawing Art