Daughter of a Spirit Eater

 

Chapter 1: A Gift From the Other Side

Tao

The exam paper glares at me, demanding answers, holding my future in its smudged pages. Every mark matters if I’m going to match my university offer, where I’ll bide my time for three more years until I figure out what to do with my life. Except I can’t focus on the questions. Not with the spirit swishing in the corner of the classroom.

Its tail has a copper hoop pattern like a red panda, but its long jaw resembles a fur-coated crocodile as it snaps its rows of teeth at me. Violet flashes across its beady eyes when it meets mine.

I pull my hair from my bun and let the cascades of black cover my peripheral vision. Spirits don’t usually linger in the material realm like this without my input, and I’m trying my best to focus on the practice paper. Frantic scribbles from my classmates surround me as they carry on with the test, oblivious, but I’ve barely put pen to paper.

When the clock reaches twenty past three, that’s it. Time’s up. I leave the room with my head low, bustled around by the other students, knowing I’ve failed yet another mock test. What a fantastic way to start Easter break.

“Hey, Tao,” my one and only friend yells from English block. It takes me two looks to recognise her. She’s cut off her locks into a pixie style and dyed the tips blonde, suiting her pointy features in a way that would never compliment my round face.

“Wait up!” she calls, wrapping an arm around my shoulder. I awkwardly match her long-legged steps as we amble home.

“You had a geography mock, right?” Skye asks. “How’d it go?”

All I can think about are the rows and rows of teeth. I sink into my shoulders and lose my footing. We break apart.

“Come on, just because something feels bad, doesn’t mean it actually is,” she says. “Exams can’t eat you alive.”

I chuckle. Maybe the exam couldn’t, but the snappy spirit wanted a bite, not that I could explain that to her without a long conversation first. “I guess not.”

“Anyway, isn’t that what mocks are for?”

 “To discover why we’re inadequate?”

“Exactly,” she says, grinning. “Go home and do something about it. You’ll feel tons better if you start revising now.”

“Spoken like a true A star student,” I tease.

We head past the corner shop where Skye waves to a bundle of her friends across the road. It gives me a moment to glance around to see if I’m still haunted. Sure enough, the snapping spirit hovers a few steps behind with its jaw lax, displaying several layers of teeth. It swishes in a figure of eight. No, wait. It’s a four. Its movements are sharp lines and it reverses mid-manoeuvre to spell out a figure of four. That’s weird. Four is not a good omen when it comes to magic. In Mandarin, it’s too close to the word for death to be anything other than bad luck.

“How’s your paps?” Skye asks as we cross the road.

“Huh? Oh, Grandad?”

“Same difference,” Skye says, reminding me that I used to call Grandfather ‘Dad’ when I was really young. It took Skye half of primary school to realise he wasn’t actually my father because I never thought to correct her. He’s my only family, and I guess that makes him all my family combined.

“He’s doing better,” I reply. “He’s painting on commission again.”

“That’s a relief. Sounds like he’s on the mend, which makes enough sense. He’s only fifty-something. That’s younger than mine, and they’re skiing this weekend.”

“True,” I say with a nod. It’s a comforting thought.

“Right, this is my turning. Oh, and remember,” Skye says, pausing as our paths home diverge. “Monday night. Don’t say you won’t be there.” She closes her eyes and holds her hands up, arms crossed as if trying to banish my thoughts. “I don’t even want to see your expression right now. Don’t overthink it. Just come out with us to the park at midnight. You don’t have to drink, just have fun. Once you’re there, you’ll love it.”

“I don’t think—”

“That’s right, no overthinking.”

I laugh. If only it was that easy to switch off thoughts and live in the moment like Skye. “See you later.”

“Yes, see you there. Tomorrow night!”

She turns around and dips into the alleyway, leaving me alone in the street. But not totally alone. The spirit from our classroom still floats behind me.

I check over my shoulder for signs of normal people, but thankfully no one else is around. I reach out my hand, nervous of the teeth, but my fingers cut through its body like smoke. There’s a warmth in the air where its body manifests, but that’s it. The spirit is pressed up against the veil between the living and dead, enough to shimmer through, but it hasn’t passed into the physical realm. I could try shifting into the spiritual realm or binding it to a talisman to pull its energy through, but I’m not sure if I remember how.

“Do you want to tell me something?” I ask the spirit.

If it had the ability to speak, it probably would have by now. Instead it snaps and swishes, desperate for my attention…but why? The rows of teeth are a bad sign for sure.

“A warning?” I ask, as someone overtakes me on the path. I cover my mouth. They walk through the spirit, oblivious, no magic in their blood.

The snappy spirit flashes purple, and something drops from the stranger’s wrist with a tink as they walk away. The spirit spirals to the pavement and places both its paws over the dropped item. It’s desperately trying to tell me something.

“That’s weird,” I whisper when the stranger is out of earshot. “A gift from the spirits?” I joke to myself, rolling my eyes.

My laugh lasts as long as I realise what this means. The gift is a watch. It’s giving me a clock, another phrase to be avoided in Mandarin.

It’s the third bad omen.

“Grandfather,” I whisper in cold terror. Clutching my backpack, I bolt down the streets. I rush past the stranger, no longer caring how weird I must look. A stitch tears my stomach in two, but I keep going. Just a little further. I keep the house at the far end in sight, the one covered in bluebells and daffodils, the flowerbeds that Grandfather makes sure I keep tidy now that he struggles to kneel on the cobblestone path.

By the time I reach the eight-sided mirror on our front door, I’m breathless. The snappy spirit is reflected, no longer able to help me. I storm into the house panting, calming my breaths so that I can listen for danger.

“Grandfather?” I ask, peering into the living room. The black cat figurine waves from the mantelpiece, warding off unwanted magical energy from our house. Whatever’s wrong, it can’t be a nefarious spirit. I sling my backpack beside the sofa and race across the living room and towards the conservatory.

Light blinds me from the ceiling windows and countless paintings of our back garden, from pond to cherry blossom, create a maze across the room. The shelf in the far corner is unusually bare, so I swerve through the paintings for a closer look. A foot pokes out from the armchair.

“Grandfather!” I cry. I rush to his side and kneel beside him. He’s lying on the floor, propped up on one elbow.

“Calm yourself, girl,” he says, waving me away. He might be wedged between an armchair and a shelving unit with paint tubes scattered around him, but he still has his pride. “I’m alright, girl.”

“You’re on the floor.”

“Yes, indeed. It must be where I’m meant to be,” he jokes.

It’s not funny. In fact, it’s terrifying, but somehow we’re both chuckling as I steady him on his feet.

When he’s up, he’s pauses for breath. His face is a masculine mirror of mine, with his cowry eyes single-lidded and lips most comfortable as a frown. White tuffs of hair adorn the sides of his head leaving his crown bald, while dark circles rim his eyes. He looks tired.

I gather the paint tubes from the floor and hand them to him to arrange on a waist-high shelf. Bruises cascade down his arm that weren’t there this morning. He must have fallen a while ago, unable to stand, waiting for me to get back from sixth form college.

“Maybe we should talk to a doctor,” I say once the room is tidy.

“A doctor could never give me what I need,” Grandfather replies, settling into his armchair in three stages. Four, if you count the sigh at the end. “If it’s my time, then it’s my time. Pass me the citrine talisman?”

I fish out the talisman made from an amber crystal from a wooden bowl. It’s escribed with the Hanzi for ‘energy’ and bound to a spirit with the form of ram. When Grandfather holds it tight, a glow rises from his skin and he relaxes into the headrest. Even though the spirit isn’t nearby, it still gifts him a few dregs of magic to replace what he lost.

“This is all I need,” he says, clutching the talisman. His eyes widen as he gazes into our garden. “I can see spirits again already. Look there, beside the yīngtáo tree.”

It’s the only word he ever says in Mandarin. Although he grew up here in Southampton like me, he’s spent enough time in Shanghai to speak fluent Mandarin. But he doesn’t. Ever. Except for the word ‘Cherry’.

The cherry tree is in full blossom, pink confetti showering the pond and bringing colour to our garden. Beside the trunk is a shimmer of a spirit hovering beneath the branches. It distorts the air but isn’t strong enough to show its form.

“Yeah, I see it.” I bite my lip, wondering how to bring the conversation back around. I close my eyes to battle the tears prickling the edges of my eyes. Tears won’t help me reach through to him, but a deep breath might. “Grandfather, I’ve been thinking.”

“Hmm?”

I cough to dislodge the words stuck to my throat. It’s as if they know better than to challenge Grandfather. But another fall like that when I’m not around, and that’s it. I can’t just stand back any more. “About the night you lost your magic. The spell you performed, the one you used to save my father—”

“You mean to stop him,” Grandfather corrects in a short tone. I need to be more careful.

“Yes, when you cut off his powers. Did you know it would take yours away too?”

He closes his eyes and sighs, and I wait for him to send me away to end the conversation. Instead, his face softens. “Your father had absorbed the energy of countless spirits at the time—a Spirit Eater at the peak of their power. I knew only a spell with a great sacrifice would be powerful enough to stop him. Banishing my magic to the spirit realm was a small price to pay, although I had not realised it would affect me physically.”

“Did you realise I’d get to keep mine?” I ask, resting on the arm of the chair, eager to know more.

“Your magic comes from your mother, may her spirit find peace. She could never shift her body into the spirit realm, but she could still communicate with the dead. You’re lucky to have such a strong connection, considering.”

“I know. It helps me feel closer to her,” I say, “although I can’t picture her face without a photo.”

Grandfather smiles as he watches the spirit above the garden pond. “You were only four at the time. She would just be glad you think of her.”

“I do.” I clear my throat again. “And my magic being so strong…I think it’s a sign.”

“Hmm? A sign?”

“Yes, a sign,” I begin, unsure how to phrase the next bit in the right way. He pulls his eyes away from the garden to frown at me. In one breath, I blurt, “Maybe I still have magic because you need someone to offer you some?”

He grimaces, adjusting himself in his armchair. “Tao, your magic is your spiritual energy for this life and the next. What you’re suggesting, I could never allow.”

“But it could work,” I argue. “It would make you feel better. I don’t have it all planned out yet, but if you taught me a little bit more—”

“Enough,” he snaps. “No more talk of magic. Let’s move on. How about you make us some of your famous stir fry or cook one of those pizzas.”

“But you need your magic back.”

“Tao, please. Enough.”

I shake my head at a loss for what to do. I want to help, but I don’t have a clue how.

So I focus on what I can do. I head to the kitchen to chop and fry vegetables like I’ve done the past five nights because it’s the only fresh meal I know how to make. I fold the clothes from the airing rack and load the dishwasher. The geography mock haunts the back of my mind, but the fridge is a sad sight for hungry eyes, so I spend the evening sorting out the online food basket instead of buried in books. Grandfather will always come first, not that any of these things will help him in the long run.

He needs magic, and if mine isn’t the answer, then what about his? If his magic is banished, it’s still out there somewhere. And he needs it back.

The spirit with too many teeth lingers outside my window, only fading once it spots me: another message, this one much clearer. If Grandfather won’t let me help him, he’s not the only one who can offer guidance. I can ask the spirits instead.