The Crimson Tree
Lan comes late to work and her boss screams, "You should have been here at 7 o'clock!" Lan says, "Why? What happened at 7 o'clock?" Yesterday, that was a joke. But this morning it is not funny; it is like the turtle with the beautiful shell. Flip it over and the animal is rotten.
Jing is not my friend, but she stands on a cross of tape next to my cross of tape, threading hair into Pretty Polly Ballerina skulls. I knot the hair. We don't do this by hand; we use robots, but the robots need human assistance. We are not supposed to talk on the floor, but there is no way to stop the news: An Yi, a Hunan girl who has been here less than a month, has jumped off her laundry porch and landed dead near a crowd of people who were waiting for the No. 17 bus, the one that goes to the bird and flower market.
"I knew it was going to happen," Jing lies under her breath. "She never slept. Did you see the bags under her eyes? She snuck out every night to play chess with a ghost in an alley not far from here, between two factory dormitories where a crimson tree grows. Do you know the spot?"
"Jing, this is serious." I guide my machine as it knots. "An Yi killed herself."
"She was given instructions by the ghost," says Jing. "The ghost is one of the girls who died last spring. The ghost told her to jump."
"I can't believe you are so superstitious, Jing. You sound like a peasant from Hunan." My face burns. I, myself, am a peasant from Hunan, but I am careful not to sound like one.
Jing turns her head to look at me. Her face is long and pale, like a root. "An Yi kept a chicken in her room, did you know that?"
"To pet. To calm herself. The monitor took it away last week, when they searched the rooms for forbidden materials."
I picture An Yi, whom I barely knew, with her chicken. I picture her crying, her face in its feathers.
"She should not have broken the rules," I say automatically, but even as I say the words I feel a wave of envy. I want a chicken. I want instructions from a ghost.
"She even named the chicken," says Jing. "She called it Pengyou. Every night, she sang it a sweet song in her dialect."
"How do you know all this? You're not even in her dormitory."
At this, Jing laughs so hard her fingers almost slip and a girl in the next row glares at her. "How do I know? Why, I'm a ghost myself."
"Stop lying, Jing." She never stops telling me stories. Crimson trees, magic rings, swans and fruit out of season.
"Aren't you, my friend? Aren't you a ghost, as well?"
I don't answer. I am not Jing's friend and I do not believe that I am a ghost. But fate has put her next to me. Things change — who knows why, or how?
All around us girls are talking just softly enough to be drowned out by machines. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.