“When Boris was a kid,” said Coco, “he was scared of everything.”
Boris had been born with an extra membrane around his brain that filtered in things other people didn’t see.
This was not unheard of. Everybody knows somebody who can see ghosts. But Boris’s peculiar tragedy was that his parents were sceptics. Marvellously, incredibly, they did not believe in spirits.
It was not just that they did not pray. Boris’s parents used to go jungle-trekking during their holidays. They were the kind of people who kicked tree stumps and shouted at the wind without fear of retaliation. They spoke openly of death as something that happened to everyone—something that would, one day, happen to them and people they knew.
This is all right, unless you are a child who sees ghosts. And Boris saw all kinds of ghosts. His eyes did not discriminate. He saw red-eyed, white-faced, long-tongued vampires, hopping horribly, reaching out for him with sharp-nailed hands. He saw pontianak and langsuir and toyol and penanggalan, orang minyak, hantu tetek, hantu kum-kum, evil genies, plain old dead people.
Even the quiet ones were terrifying, with their sad eyes and transparent bodies. They were so hungry.
Every ghost wanted something from Boris. Usually they wanted his entrails.
As a small child Boris started at everything. He was afraid of shadows and the dark, of loud noises, of whispers, of people with red faces, of cats and dogs, of old people and babies. He could not sleep if it was raining. He threw tantrums if he was forced to go to the bathroom alone.
This was irritating for his parents. Boris withdrew into himself. People started wondering if there was something—you know—funny about him. They felt sorry for his parents, though it was Boris who was suffering, at prey to the whims of the ubiquitous underworld.
In the picture on the lion dance troupe’s website, Boris looks strong and cheerful. His forehead is beaded with sweat from a training session; his lean arms hoist the lion head high in the air. He smiles fearlessly into the camera.
You can tell that here is a young man who has found a destiny to push him forward. He has the sunny conviction of one secure in the knowledge of what he is meant for.
But peel off the layers of time, roll him back to the child he was. Boris never got very large or tall, and he’s never quite lost the frown that drew his eyebrows together. With not too strenuous an effort of the imagination you can see in the dauntless lion dancer the child’s skinny legs pitted with scabs, the hunched shoulders, the small, guarded face.
He could easily have lived out his life with those hunched shoulders, pursued by the unfulfillable longings of the dead and spiritous, if not for the discovery.
It had happened when he was seven. It was Chinese New Year and for once his parents hadn’t gone hiking on some spirit-soaked mountain. They were in Ipoh, where Boris’s grandmother lived. His parents were buying kuih from a street-side hawker stall when Boris realised there was a man at the end of the street whom he should not look at.
Boris had learnt not to seem frightened no matter how much his heart shook and his breath stuttered. But his eyes stopped seeing; his mouth went dry. Because he refused to turn around he was not sure what the man looked like, but out of the corner of his eyes he saw the inhuman blue tufts of hair. He smelt the stale exhalations of the undead.
He must be calm. The man had not yet realised that Boris could see him.
Seeing ghosts was not really the problem. The problem was when they looked back.
“Ma,” he whimpered.
Boris’s tough, hearty parents ignored him:
“I’m getting the pisang goreng,” said his mother. “You know your favourite? You wait first lah. Mummy will get for you.”
Boris could not help himself. He looked.
He was wrong after all. It was only shaped like a man. When you had a proper look at it, it was not very like.
The thing looked back.
Nobody told Boris what happened when ghosts realise you can see them, but he knew it on a bone-deep level. He had escaped horror many times in his short life, but somehow he knew this time was different.
The thing started moving towards him, in a spiky mechanical shamble. Boris could not move or cry out, though doing that had saved him before. He was frozen. He knew his doom was upon him, that fate was about to touch him on the face.
That was when he heard the drum.
The thing paused and raised its many-eyed head.
The lion came flaming down the road, attended by golden clashings.
“Ah,” said the hawker stall auntie, pleased. “Aiyoh,” said Boris’s parents, dismayed—just when they’d thought they’d be able for once to have an afternoon out without an exhibition from Boris.
They looked at Boris and seeing his still face, thought him struck with terror.
It was a great emotion that held Boris in its grasp, but for once it was not fear.
The lion was gold and red and silver; its head was white-furred like the face of a kind grandfather; the bounce of its feet was like the dance of sunlight on water. Its sequined body twinkled in the lights from the hawker stalls. The sky was blue with evening, but the lion was bright as the day.
When it landed in front of him his mother put a hand on Boris’s shoulder, to reassure her always-frightened son.
But Boris looked up into the lion’s round glass eyes and what he felt was love. The lion’s hinged mouth dropped open. The antennae on its snout quivered. Its hot stinking breath brushed his cheek.
Boris knew, for the first time in his life, that he was safe. For once the membrane showed him something worth seeing—the fact that the lion was real. He saw the muscles rippling underneath its fur-lined scaly hide. He saw the pulse throbbed out by the drum shake the lion’s flanks.
Under the clanging of the cymbals, he heard the ghost chitter with fear.
When the lion reared on its back legs and leaped forward, when its massive jaws closed around the ghost, it was only doing what Boris had expected it to do.
The other people on the street saw the lion eat air. Boris saw the lion’s first snap crush the ghost’s leg.
The lion bowed its head, blinking at a gourd quietly placed on the ground by a troupe member. A second snap.
One way of seeing: a human hand reached out from the lion’s mouth and grabbed the gourd. You could only see it if you were close to the lion, and only from a certain angle. It was so swift you could almost believe the lion had done it itself.
Another way of seeing, just as true: the lion swallowed the ghost. It snatched the gourd by the neck and chugged its contents down. It dropped the gourd and raised its shaggy head in triumph, shaking its rear, puffed up with pride:
“See what I did?” it would have said, if lions spoke human languages. “I have kept everyone safe.”
But lions don’t talk—or roar, for that matter. They let their hearts speak for them.
As the lion pranced away down the road, the drum and the cymbals following, Boris disengaged his hand from his mother’s and walked to the spot where the ghost had been slaughtered.
The lion hadn’t cleaned its plate. A great brown slug glared up at Boris from the ground. Bizarrely for a slug, it had six staring red eyes, and a lot of blue hair.
“Eeyer,” said Boris’s mother. “Don’t be scared, boy, come here and take Mummy’s hand. Insect is more scared of you. Boris, what are you doing!”
Boris squashed the slug under his heel.
The viscera of the slug was corrosive. Smeared on the road, it created the smallest of potholes. Boris inspected the underside of his shoe. There didn’t seem to be much shoe left, so he decided to take it off.
His mother could never understand what had happened to that shoe, and she never knew what happened to her son, either. He became outgoing and unflappable. He stared fearlessly into the corners of houses, went to sleep the minute his head hit the pillow, seemed to enjoy horror movies as if they were comedies.
At ten, he started to train with a local lion dance troupe. He went on with it when he went overseas to study, and founded a troupe at university.
“Otherwise I’ll have nothing on my CV,” he said when people asked, but really it was his favourite thing to do.
It was an expensive hobby, however—lion heads cost a few hundred pounds; the large drum costs more; and all these things must be replaced as they are worn down over time.
The university paid out a little to support cultural diversity, but it wasn’t enough. People are happy to shell out to have a lion dance inaugurate their shop or bless their wedding. They pay even more to have the skeletons cleaned out of their closets. Nobody likes having a ghost in the house.
“And that’s how the troupe ended up ghostbusting,” said Coco. “It’s a good story, right?”
“What happened to Boris?” said Jia Qi.
“Oh, he’s working at Goldman Sachs now,” said Coco. “I see him sometimes when I go to London. He wants to be a millionaire by the time he’s thirty.”
This seemed to Jia Qi a somewhat disappointing ending to the story. “Does he still do lion dance?”
“He gets about four hours of sleep a night,” said Coco. “I don’t think he does much of anything besides work. Anyway, the last time I saw him Boris said he wasn’t into it anymore.”
“Lion dance for fun, okay,” Boris had said. “To kill the hantu, not so much anymore lah.”
“But that’s why you got into it, isn’t it?” said Coco.
“Yes, but,” said Boris. His eyes went filmy and distant—though maybe that was just the redness of sleep deprivation.
“Actually, no,” he said. “I started because of love. I really love that lion. You ask me if I love my girlfriend more than that lion, I also won’t know how to answer you. And you know the story about the origins of the lion dance? Why they all started doing it in ancient China?”
“They wanted to get rid of the Nian, didn’t they?” said Coco, who had read the Wikipedia page. “This monster came to the village and the lion fought it off.”
“That’s one story,” said Boris. “But the other story is, maybe the lion is the Nian. You look at the lion. It doesn’t look much like real lion, right? Where got real lion got horn? Maybe the Nian has horn. In the end maybe it’s the same thing.
“Somehow doesn’t seem right,” said Boris, “getting the lion to eat spirit. It’s like cannibal, right? That’s why I stopped.”
Coco shrugged. “Fish feed is made of fish.”
“You ask me if I love my mother as much as that lion, I don’t know if I would say yes or not,” was all Boris would say.
But to be fair to Boris, he was pretty drunk at the time.
“七星鼓 (Seven Star Drum)” is copyright © 2016 by Zen Cho, and is a companion piece to “起狮，行礼 (Rising Lion—The Lion Bows)”, which was published at Strange Horizons in March 2011.