I’d started cooking my first meal in the kitchen, corn soup with egg, when suddenly I felt a light hand on my shoulder. I turned around, and there was the previous owner of my new house, standing right behind me as if she hadn’t died the week before.
“Whatcha makin’ there, honey?” she asked, cheerful and energetic, blue eyes large and curious in her pale, wrinkled face. The lipstick on her mouth was the same ketchup red as the photos her son had shown me.
I screamed, dropping the can of creamed corn, where it splattered all over the pristine wooden floor. “Your son said you died!”
“Of course I’m dead, you silly girl!” she told me. She laughed as I stood there, trying to take some deep breaths, as if my screams and mess were uproariously funny and not a reasonable reaction to finding ghosts in my kitchen.
Once I could find words again, I asked: “How are you even here if you’re dead?”
“He didn’t tell you about this place?” She peered out, shading her eyes with a knotty, blue-veined hand. The new lamp they’d hung in the dining room during remodeling caught her eye, and she frowned. “Not that I recognize it. All this gray and silver.”
“No, he didn’t say anything!”
She gestured expressively about the kitchen. “It’s the house! People who just passed find their way over and stay for a while. Built at a crossroads, you know. They say it’s between worlds.”
This was making me dizzy, so I slowly sat on the ground, trying to avoid the corn puddle. Neither the son nor the realtor had mentioned this. “That sounds kind of scary…”
“Oh, no, hon, not at all! They’re newly dead, and this place is the last stop before they move on. They come here to rest up, gather their bearings a little.” She pointed at herself, eyes twinkling merrily. “I’m dead, aren’t I?”
Yes, she was dead. Very dead. This shouldn’t be happening, but it was, and at least she was a friendly ghost. Maybe that meant ghosts in general weren’t the horror movie kind, but ordinary, like her. “So…you just need to rest up a bit before moving on?”
She threw her head back, showing off her yellowed teeth as she laughed. “You got it! See, it’s not so bad. I figured, ‘well, the new owner’s probably moved in, better tell her about the ghosts!’ So here I am.”
“I…I see.” The pot began to clatter, having reached a strong boil. “Oh, the soup!” My phone vibrated in my apron pocket as I jumped to my feet. It was Mom, with a text that read: Not feeling well today. Please pick up my heart medication at the pharmacy. Thanks. Come over tomorrow and we can eat beef noodles.
The old woman shook her head, still chuckling. “Never thought I’d be the ghost dropping by,” she said, leaning over to look at the stove. “What’s that you got, anyway?”
“Oh,” I said, turning down the heat. “Hmm. It’s a Chinese corn soup with egg.” It was the first soup Mom taught me how to make, when she started making me stay in the kitchen to watch her cook dinner, like she’d done with Waipo before.
She nodded approvingly. “Sounds delicious. I’ll have a bowl of that, if you don’t mind.”
And that was how it all started.
In Chinese mythology, there’s an old woman in the underworld that’s always stirring a big pot of soup. When you die, you drink it to forget everything that happened in your life, so that you can move onto the next one. It’s a story they taught us in Chinese school when we were kids.
I think about her when I’m making my soups, whether it’s from scratch, or just dumping in something from a can: that strange parallel between me, a not-quite-young woman up here in the living world, with her down below, both stirring away at our bubbling pots.
Most leave before the forty-nine days are up.
There was a kid, once, though, who died a few days short of her sixteenth birthday, when the skies were gray and the trees had shed their leaves. I’d fed her some grilled cheese and tomato soup, and she told me her story between tear-soaked sips. She’d died in her sleep.
“The doctor said there was something wrong with my heart. Can you believe that?” she sobbed. “I was on the goddamn soccer team. That’s impossible. And we had so much cool stuff planned for my birthday. Then there was winter formal, and I was gonna go with Bobby Garcia from chem!”
I’d sympathized—I’d been glad to graduate high school and move onto university, but I was old enough to be nostalgic for my teens, when so much life lay ahead. It was never easy when dead kids came into my kitchen. On some level, they knew that they were never going to have the rich multitude of experience like their friends and classmates.
But rules are rules, and she had to move on, either to stay in the afterlife, or be reborn. I did what I could to ease the passing, from celebrating her sixteenth birthday with funfetti cake to one final drive around her neighborhood to say goodbye.
When day forty-nine became day fifty, she started to fade. If she was standing in the sun, her tan skin went transparent, only to reappear when the clouds rolled in. By day fifty-seven, she passed through everything from water to wood, the way the wind moved through trees before a thunderstorm.
“You have to move on,” I told her. I tried to touch her shoulders, but my hands only found empty air, even though she was standing in front of me.
“No! It’s not fair!” she howled, long brown hair whipping about her face. The windows rattled, punctuated by the clatter and smash of dishes from the kitchen. “It’s almost Christmas! I want to stay!”
“I know,” I said, “but you’ve stayed past forty-nine days. Your form’s degrading. And you’re beginning to lose yourself.” If this kept going, all that would be left was rage and sadness, and there was no moving on from that except for exorcism.
I’d started carrying salt on me since day fifty. The peach wood sword I’d bought online hadn’t arrived yet. I should have gotten it earlier, because I’d been hosting the dead for some time and I needed protection, but with Mom and her worsening heart condition, it had fallen by the wayside.
I really wished I had it now. If it’d been in the house, things would have been so much easier.
The ghost began to fade out again, but I still felt her rage, thick and choking. “If you don’t move on,” I said, trying to keep my voice even, “I’ll have to exorcise you. Exorcised ghosts disappear forever. There’s no afterlife for them.”
She bared her teeth, green eyes flashing all fury. “I don’t care. Everyone else acts like I’m gone, anyway.”
My hand clenched around the bag of salt in my pocket. “You’re just dead, for now. But if you move on, you can be reborn. You’ll get another chance to have a sixteenth birthday, to go to winter formal, to grow up.”
“It won’t be the same,” she said. Tears were running down her face, vanishing like smoke when they landed. A crack appeared on the sliding glass door next to me with a loud pop.
“I know. I’m sorry. It’s not fair. It’s better than disappearing forever, though, and I’ll have to make you disappear if you keep staying.” Keeping eye contact with her was hard, but I tried.
“I can’t tell you if your next life will be better than this one,” I continued, “but you won’t find out if you don’t move on.”
She was quiet for a while. It felt like years, standing there with her, my breath aching in my chest.
Then she swallowed, and one last sob broke from her as the crack on the sliding glass door spread further out.
“Okay.” Her voice was small and shaky, and her hands were balled into fists. “Okay, I’ll go.”
Then it was just me, standing in my living room, and the only draft I felt was the cold air coming in from my broken sliding glass door.
“I don’t—I still don’t get it,” the newly arrived ghost said, bewilderment all over their dark umber face. “How did the plane crash? Everything was supposed to be fine.”
I put a bowl of lotus root soup, steaming hot, on the woven straw placemat in front of them. “Yeah, that sounds awful,” I said. “You’d think the airline would have done a better job making sure everything was safe.”
They sat up, their gaze on me intense, their glittery purple eyeliner smudged from crying. “I know, right? There was a documentary about how you were safer on a plane than in your own bathroom, for God’s sake.” They picked up their chopsticks, poking morosely at a chunk of pork floating in the bowl of soup.
“I just…my wife, she’s devastated, no doubt about it. We have a kid on the way, our first one. She was looking forward to us being a family, you know? Now I’m dead, and she’s going to be here, alone, with our kid…” They hung their head, long locs hiding their face from view. “I wish I could see her one last time.”
I felt like I could do nothing but let the silence stretch between us. “Yeah,” I finally said. “I’m sorry.”
The ghost looked up at me, brown eyes large and sad. “There’s no way you can make that happen, can you? Sometimes there’s stories about how there’s one last visit from the dead to their loved ones, just to say goodbye?”
I shook my head. “I wouldn’t know how to make it happen.” My mind drifted to Mom, then, saying that. I remembered what the doctor had told me, how much time she had left. A year, probably. Maybe a year and a half.
When she died, would I be able to see her?
The ghost sighed, deflated. “Should have figured they were just stories. Guess this is the only place where anyone can see me, then. ‘The last stop between earth and the afterlife’, right?”
“That’s right.” I ladled up my own bowl of soup. “And you’ll have to move on to the afterlife, eventually.”
“I can’t stay here?” they asked plaintively.
I sat down across from them, picked up my own chopsticks. “You have forty-nine days from the date of your death to stay here. After that…it’s not good for you to stay longer.” I thought about the fading, the broken windows, the unbearable weight of sorrow and fury. After I’d hung the peach wood sword in my home, there hadn’t been any more problems.
“Damn.” They blinked, wiping tears furiously away with one hand. “I hate this. I hate this so much. I’m not supposed to be dead. I was about to get a family of my own, for God’s sake. I didn’t think I’d ever have that. Just when I was about to make it.”
It was never easy dealing with situations like this. “I really am sorry,” I said. “It’s not right that you had to lose all of that.” I didn’t know what else I could say to make it better, and I hated myself for it at that moment.
There was an uneasy silence as I tried to eat. Finally, they asked: “Seven weeks, right? That’s forty-nine days.”
My soup was cooling—I took a large gulp so I didn’t have to reheat it. “Yup.”
They sighed, twisting a ring—a simple gold band—around a bony finger. “My wife’s due in a month. Am I stuck here? Can I see her before I move on?”
There was an oily sheen on the soup’s surface threatening to congeal. My internal Mom voice was nagging me to microwave it already. “You can,” I said warily. “But she won’t be able to see you. Nobody can, except me.”
“That’s fine,” they said. “Actually, it’s not. But I’ll take it.”
I could say the same about Mom, I thought, later that night, as I ladled soup for her into a container, making sure there was plenty of pork.
I wondered how many more times the two of us could share food with each other.
An incredibly famous politician came here, after he died.
He’d been around for decades, a fixture in history and in the capital. His speeches and interviews were so riveting that you couldn’t help but absorb every word, filled with hope and fire in every syllable, no matter whether you were watching on the couch or listening with half an ear over the stove. Everyone was moved by his optimism, his kindness, his vision in the country’s—and humanity’s—potential for greatness.
I’d known he’d been ailing for some time. Even without official statements, it was easy to tell he was weakening as the months passed, his life draining out bit by bit. He moved with more care. He was growing thinner, and a pallor settled into his face.
It reminded me, grimly, of Mom.
When I heard the news that he’d passed, on a crisp, cool autumn morning, it came as a foregone conclusion. It was a surprise, though, finding his stout figure leaning on my kitchen counter a few days later, right as I was starting dinner.
“My, that smells good,” he said. “What is it?”
His appearance was still haggard, and sallowness lingered in his cheeks, once a rich sienna. Instead of his usual suits, he was in a worn bathrobe over a T-shirt and pajama bottoms. But his deep brown eyes looked a bit brighter than before, no longer clouded with pain.
I stirred the frying onions in my red Dutch oven a little more, then added both roasted and raw garlic cloves, more than what the recipe called for. “Garlic soup. I’m getting over a cold. But there’s enough for two, if you’d like some.” More than enough, as I was going to take some to Mom. She liked the soup, even if she complained about the richness of the cream and butter.
He tilted his head at me quizzically, scratching at the gray stubble on his chin. “Can I eat, even if I’m dead?”
I sprinkled in some powdered sage, which also was a deviation from the recipe, but I liked it better. “Hasn’t stopped the others.” I gestured at the living room. “This is going to take a while, so make yourself comfortable. Anything you’d like to drink?”
“You got any Sam Adams?” he asked, shuffling toward the couch. “I died before I could have one last bottle.”
I smiled. “Coming right up.”
“Why am I still here?” he asked later, smacking his lips over a spoonful of soup. “I thought once we died it was either heaven, hell, or some afterlife, but staying here, on earth?” He shook his head.
I scooped up one of the few remaining pasta shells floating in my bowl. “When people die, their souls stay here for forty-nine days. In my culture, we call it ‘qi-qi’ or ‘seven-seven.’”
“Is that so?” He smiled wryly. “I guess that makes some sense. Does that make you the last stop before I move on?”
“That’s what the previous owner said,” I replied. “Well, something like that, anyway. She said something about how this place is between worlds. But you can only stay here for forty-nine days, and then you need to move on.”
He was quiet for a bit, then took another spoonful of garlic soup. “So, you’re Miss Forty-Nine Days, then,” he said. “Somehow, after coming here, I feel a bit better. Like everything’s going to be all right, even if I’m gone.”
“The news said you died peacefully, at least. I’m sorry,” I added quickly, catching myself. “It’s just that based on what I saw and read, it seemed like you’d accepted things.”
He laughed ruefully, leaning back in his seat. “I did, in the end. You can’t run from death forever. But there was so much left to do, whether it was bills to sign, or hearings, or votes.”
I watched him sip his beer. “My doctor kept telling me to slow down, that it could wait until I was feeling better.” He shook his head. “I was in politics for thirty years, and this doctor was still a kid, not much older than you. The work can’t wait. But now I don’t have a choice.”
“You sound like my mom.”
I pushed the lone remaining pasta shell around in my bowl. “My mom…she’s got a serious heart condition. But every time we tell her to rest, or that whatever work she’s got to do can wait, she won’t listen. I…she doesn’t have much time left, you know? Probably a year.”
“Ah, I see,” he said. “Well, I’m afraid what I have to offer isn’t that comforting, even if that’s what I was known for while I was alive.” He chuckled a little at his own joke.
“I can’t do anything, right?”
“You’re not the one with the bad heart. She is.” He stirred the cooling soup in his bowl, then took another spoonful with a loud slurp. “And you can’t keep her from death any more than I could keep myself from it.”
I didn’t expect Mom to find her way into my place after she died. Most people appear a day or two after they die, but she took her time coming here, not showing up until after the funeral, after I’d changed out of my black dress, thrown on an apron, and was crying over a Cornish hen in the rice cooker.
“What’s there to cry about?” she asked. “And what am I doing here, in your messy kitchen?”
I didn’t know whether to snap back at her out of familiarity, or laugh because death hadn’t changed her a single bit, from her graying bob to her old green slippers to that disdainful grimace she now wore. She looked nothing like the woman in the coffin I’d just buried.
Instead, I gestured at the rice cooker, and the Cornish hen sitting in the pot, full of water. “I just got back from your funeral,” I said, trying not to choke, “and I missed you. I thought I’d make the chicken soup you always made. But I…I don’t know how.”
Mom stared at me for a while, as the birds chirped outside in the early spring afternoon. Then she sighed, shaking her head. “Look at yourself,” she said. “I kept telling you I wouldn’t live forever, remember? Nobody is immortal.”
“I know.” I sniffled, feeling my nose run. “But…”
“Never mind, never mind.” Mom pushed past me. “Do you have dried shiitakes?”
I went ahead and pulled out the jar she’d given me when I’d first moved in. She opened it and took out a couple. “There, you’ll need that much. Soak those in water. Where are your scallops?”
I pointed at the cutting board on the counter, where they sat in a pile. Mom immediately tsked. “Too many!” she snapped. “Dried scallops are expensive!”
Mom waved me off impatiently. “Hurry, soak the mushrooms already. I don’t know why I’m here, but I’ll show you how to make the soup anyway. It’s easy.”
That was Mom: getting down to business.
“There,” Mom said, as I set her bowl of soup down. “That wasn’t hard, was it?”
“You’re right. It was really easy.”
Mom looked at me over the steam rising between us, with narrowed eyes. “You remember how to do it now, right? You can make it by yourself?”
I picked my chopsticks up, gazing down at my bowl to hide the tears, swallowed to get rid of the lump in my throat. “Yeah,” I mumbled.
“Good.” Mom visibly relaxed, then picked up her chopsticks too, taking a bite of the drumstick I’d given her.
I took a bite out of my own drumstick, and it was like being at the old family table again for dinner, that familiar comfort seeping from my core to my extremities.
It was as if Mom was still alive for one brief moment.
“I was afraid of this,” Mom said, all of a sudden. “Here you are, after my funeral, and you’re upset. You know I didn’t want that. I told you so many times not to cry.”
“I couldn’t help it,” I replied, words sullen. “I knew you were going to die, but it’s…it was hard, when the time came. I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
I’d managed to get her hospice care so that she could die at home, at least. But I’d hoped to be at her side for her last hours. Instead, I’d listened when she told me to go home for the night, and by the time I showed up the next day, she was long gone.
Her hands were so cold when I’d held them. I’d sat there for a while, trying to rub the warmth back in before finally calling the hospice nurse.
Tears pricked at my eyes as I remembered that moment. It was hard to believe that had only been last week.
Mom sighed. “Are you feeling guilty because you weren’t there?”
“I—I don’t know. I wanted to be there when it happened, and I wasn’t. I wanted to say goodbye, and I couldn’t.” A tear dropped into my soup, and I wiped my eyes.
“Well, I’m here now. And your soup is getting cold. Hurry and eat.”
“How are you feeling now?” I asked, after I’d drunk my reheated soup.
Mom tilted her head. “Peaceful,” she said, slowly. “Like all that trouble is finally over. I can relax now.”
“That makes sense,” I said. “Are you ready to move on, then?”
She nodded, eyes closing. “I can hear them,” she said. “The ones who have already passed. Your father. Your grandparents. Some of my old friends. They’re calling me. They want me to join them.”
There was a pregnant silence that hung between us. I let it grow and grow, until it threatened to burst and flood the entire room. “You’re ready to go, except you’re worried about me. That’s it, right?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Mom opened her eyes. “I’m ready, but you’re not. Mothers can’t leave unless they know the children can manage on their own.”
I hung my head. “I tried to prepare,” I said. “I really did.”
A loud bang made me jump: it was Mom smacking the table. “How can I leave,” she snapped, bolting up from her seat, “when you’re like this? Don’t you know I’ll worry?”
“I can’t help it if I’m upset about your death!” I yelled. “I’m sorry I can’t hold it together like you. But you’re my mom. What did you expect?”
“You’re an adult!” she shouted back. “Look at yourself! You’re supposed to reassure the dead you’ll be fine so we can move on peacefully! But you’re not fine!”
And she was right. She was dead, and this was the last time I’d ever see her. And I was lucky to have this one last meeting, but here we were, fighting as if she was still alive and well.
“Do you really mean it,” I finally asked, “when you tell me you’re feeling peaceful? That you’re glad that’s all behind you now?”
“Can you really hear Dad and Waipo and Waigong and your friends calling you?”
Mom’s glare still scared me, even in death. “Did you think I was spouting nonsense for fun?”
“No, of course not.” I took a deep breath, and counted the seconds in my head. By eight, I let it out. “Okay. If you’re at peace, and you want to join everyone, I won’t stop you.”
She looked at me warily. “Really? Are you going to wail and cry after I leave?”
“No!” I blurted. “Well, maybe. If you’re all right, though, that’s fine with me. I’ll miss you a lot! But I’ll be okay. I promise.”
Mom stared at me for a long time, like she did during our fights when I was growing up. Then, she sighed.
“I died at eighty-one,” she said, sitting back down. “What a long life. You really should celebrate that I lived so long.”
Tears stung my eyes again, and I wiped my face even as she scowled. “You’re right. That’s not easy.”
Mom was gone the next morning.
She’d left me breakfast on the table: a plate of dan bing, one of my favorites. She’d probably just left; the scent of frying scallions hung in the air. Next to the plate was a mug of Ovaltine mixed with instant coffee and condensed milk, still warm, something I used to drink every morning before I went to catch the school bus.
I could feel the tears coming as I took it all in. Then I remembered she was on her way to all the loved ones waiting for her in the afterlife, and I felt at ease, knowing she left this world content.
Hurry, eat before it gets cold, I could hear her saying, so I sat down, picked up the chopsticks thoughtfully left beside the plate, and did just that.
As I ate, I remembered there was still leftover soup from the night before. I almost didn’t want to finish it, because it was my last memory of Mom. But now I could make it whenever I wanted. And soon, that would be all I needed whenever I missed her.
Mina Li started writing stories in second grade. Her fiction has appeared in An Alphabet of Embers, Kaleidotrope, Robot Dinosaurs, and ReMapping Wonderland. She tweets every now and then at @CodenameMinaLi and has a blog at minasli.wordpress.com. She lives in southeast Michigan, and is currently into network news theme music.
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