Shrine to the Ink Goddess
by Monte Lin
Dana Liu took her weekly ten-minute walk to what she called the Shrine to the Ink Goddess. Stepping through the copse of trees that separated the apartment complex and the storm channel, she arrived at a large, hollowed-out eucalyptus tree, split into three parts ages ago from a lightning bolt. She ducked down and sat in the middle, placing an empty inkstone next to her, and took out a beat-up metal food container with a warm zòngzi, the twine still tightly wrapped around the bamboo leaves. With her multi-tool, she snapped the knife through the twine, unfurling the leaves. She grimaced at the soggy bottom (microwaving never seemed to heat them right).
“Ahem. You know you shouldn’t be here, Dana.”
The teenager reflexively shrank deeper into the hollow, forcing the cop to kneel and squint into the dark space.
“Yī, èr, sān, sì, wŭ, liù, qī, bā, jiŭ, shí…”
Ama swung her arms out in rhythm to the counting on the tablet. The tiny woman, her motions squeaking due to her puffy jacket, measured her breath in the same way. An even tinier seven-year-old Dana swung out her arms also, pausing only to synchronize with her grandmother.
“Chī fàn,” Ama said. She pulled at a tote bag hanging on the eucalyptus, removing the same–but shiny–metal container. She snapped open the latches and bent down to let Dana see. A steamed zòngzi, the twine already cut. Ama carefully unwrapped the bamboo leaves, revealing the pyramid of brown sticky rice in the middle, an unfurled flower.
Dana took the metal container in both hands and looked around. Ama started, a tiny hop backward. “Ah?! Méi yŏu quàizi?”
Then the old woman shrugged, smiled, and pinched a bit of rice between her fingers. She gestured to Dana, who rubbed her hands on her leggings and grabbed a chunk in her small fist. The girl navigated the messy meal, leaving bits of rice, egg, peanuts, and pork all over her face.
Meanwhile, Ama leaned close to the eucalyptus and placed her ink stone in the center. She took a deep breath to smell the faint piney scent, still prevalent even in the cold, and whispered to the tree. Satisfied with the silent answer, she carefully took out the ink stone, now with a faint sprinkle of deep black ink.
Susan opened the door to their house to see her daughter standing next to Officer Whatever-His-Name-Is. One hand remained hooked on his belt and the other hovered near, but not touching, Dana’s shoulder.
“Dana was on the restricted property. I don’t want to disrespect your culture, but you can’t keep your religious icons there.”
“The… papers in the tree? It’s going to be cut down next week and that area bulldozed for development.”
The cop had hunched down, hands up in surrender despite being the one with authority, trying to coax Dana out of the hollow. Papers and letters, pinned to the insides of the tree, surrounded the teenager like a halo. He had threatened to call for back-up or a child advocate at first, but when he mentioned that they’d end up contacting her mother, she quickly removed a set of colored pens, a set of brushes, and an empty inkstone and reluctantly crawled out.
“Tch. No, no, that’s not our culture,” Susan said. “That’s just a game Dana is playing.”
Dana walked inside, taking off her shoes and placing them to one side amongst the slippers and other footwear in the foyer. “It’s not a game, Mama,” she said under her breath.
The police officer followed the girl in, his shoes stepping firmly on the carpet. “Still, that area is private property. And under construction. I don’t want to write her up for trespassing. She can’t go back there.”
“But my letters, Ama’s letters,” Dana interjected.
“She understands,” Susan said. “She won’t go there again.”
The police officer looked back and forth, a blank look on his face. “Does she understand? She could get into a lot of trouble. The property owner could sue.”
“She understands. Thank you, officer.”
Ama got away with a lot by walking straight and with purpose, smiling, and saying, “Hello!” even with a heavy, rounded accent, especially carrying an easel and sketch pad as if she owned the place. Ama knew, of course, that she shouldn’t be in the copse but the split tree had called to her. The shape mimicked the character xiān and the tree had lived, not broken, not damaged, but transformed.
Not her son, not her daughter-in-law, not David, but only nine-year-old Dana liked to walk with her to the tree, also shouting a bold, “Hello!” to passersby. When Ama knelt to whisper the rest of her story to the eucalyptus, she noticed Dana breaking out her set of colored pencils. Kneeling next to her, she put the sketch pad in between them. With six bold strokes with the red pencil, Ama transformed the blank page into xiān. With dozens more strokes, she transformed xiān into a tree. Together, both of them colored in the rest of the page.
Even though her mother complained about the police officer (“He didn’t even take off his shoes!”) during dinner, Dana knew that she blamed her for the whole situation. “Grow up! Stop being so childish!”
“Ama loved that tree.”
“How would you know?” David asked. Her brother quaffed his bowl of soup. “You never understood a word she said.”
“You don’t understand Chinese either,” she bit back. “So how do you know?”
Dana, however, did know. She had found their grandmother’s watercolors and one of her poems in that tree. The prayer, written with Chinese calligraphy in looping script, sat inside the hollow trunk, a bright white light in the dark, black soil. On the other side of the paper was their shared pencil drawing of the tree.
“You are in trouble,” Susan said. “I never want to see that officer again.”
Dana looked to her father, but the frown and the shake of his head indicated no salvation or forgiveness. “Grounded. No friends. No going out.”
Dana turned her head, but when Ama’s sharp voice did not come to her rescue, she slumped into her chair.
“Dork,” her brother said, as he got up to help clean up the table, as the good child was supposed to do.
To Ama, a picture was worth a thousand words, a poem worth a thousand pictures. Her son, however, had no love of such frivolities. He studied science and math, modern, Western, careful, clear, guaranteeing work. They never understood each other, even though they spoke the same language.
Dana now, they understood each other, even though they couldn’t communicate. Her granddaughter held her colored pencils gently, like a brush. When faced with a blank piece of paper, Dana would stare at it intently, carving out the image from white space with her eyes. The child took to her instruction easily with a point of a finger or a brush. That was why when her son would chastise Dana for drawing so much, Ama would defend her.
Dana had no problem sneaking out. Her father didn’t guard the door. Her mother didn’t take away her shoes. To them, disobedience was unfathomable. David went out with friends, lying about errands or work or church functions. She had never taken advantage of this security flaw, just fumed at her brother.
The thrill of being out and the fear of being out alternated between footsteps. Thrill. Fear. Thrill. Fear. It took all of her concentration to not power walk, to zip across the neighborhood like an out of control skateboard. So much concentration that she hadn’t noticed her feet leaving the snap snap snap of concrete for the muffled crunch crunch crunch of sticks and soil.
She looked up and stared at a wall of yellow, the side of one of the construction machines. In the darkness of night, punctuated by the harsh white streetlights, the yellow wall loomed like a disapproving monster.
Keep walking to get Ama’s papers, or…. Dana slowly crept around the machine and saw a whole row of them, loader buckets lowered at rest. The telescoping handler’s boom of the one she stood beside was outstretched like an arm pointing toward the copse.
Dana spied a gas cap, grabbed a handful of dirt, and tried to open it. She unconsciously crushed the dirt, squeezing it through her fingers, as the gas cap refused to turn. Digging for her phone from her bag, she turned on the flashlight, saw the keyhole, and cursed.
She could super glue the keyhole, but that meant running back to the house, and Dana did not have the fortitude to sneak right back out again. She had her multitool, however, and dropping the compressed clod of dirt and wiping her hand on the side of the machine, she unfolded the knife and pressed against the side of the giant tire. The rubber resisted.
Dana leaned in, cursing her lack of interest in intramural sports, but the knife only dug in a little. Her feet slid on the sticks and soil, and with one last push, the knife snapped and she slammed against the side of the vehicle.
A flashlight flicked on, and Dana looked at her hands (no blood, but it was too dark), at the tire (the blade wasn’t there), at the light (it wobbled toward her direction), and toward the way out (into the street with the streetlight, exposed).
“Oh, hey, hey, sorry, I didn’t know anyone was here,” a voice said. A familiar voice. David?
“You’re not supposed to be here, sir.” Another familiar voice: Officer Whatever-His-Name-Is.
“Okay, it’s okay. I’m part of the construction company. My boss wanted me to check out the equipment since I happen to live nearby. Figured I’d do that during my evening jog.”
“I’ll have to see some ID.”
“Sure. No problem.”
Dana couldn’t find the knife blade. All the sticks on the ground had the same long, shadowy shape. With careful steps, she crept away from her brother and the cop as they struck up a conversation about a certain crazy sister.
“You have to help me.”
Later that night, Dana stood behind David, waiting for him to finish brushing his teeth, blocking access to the sink. “You do need help,” he mumbled, mouth full. “Psychological help.”
“Can you get my letters from the tree?”
He gave her a “seriously” look in the mirror. “You owe me for last night,” he mumbled, mouth foaming. “You really weren’t that sneaky.”
“Ok, sure. I’ll wash dishes.”
“Yeah, right.” He rolled his eyes. “I’m not tromping all over private property.”
“You work on the construction site, right? You won’t be trespassing.”
“The tree’s nowhere near where I work. I’m not using up my lunch break just to get your love notes to yourself.”
“Ama’s spirit lives on in that tree.”
“They’re eucalyptus trees. They aren’t even native to America. They’re Australian. And an invasive species. They make a mess, too.”
She frowned. “Don’t people think we’re an invasive species?”
“You’re the parasite. I help around the house. I have a job. A good one. I make money.”
“Yeah? When are you moving out? Or are you going to siphon off of Mama and Baba like a parasite too?”
David frowned. “I’m saving up. Once I have enough money, I can leave you and your gross girly bathroom stuff behind.”
“Good. At least the bathroom won’t stink all the time.”
“Be nicer to your sister,” their father said over breakfast. Dana had not woken up yet. Their mother had already left for work. “You’re the older brother. Take some responsibility.”
“Dad, I work full time. What does she do?”
“She’s studying to go into college so she can get a better job.”
David bristled. “She’s a weirdo. She shouldn’t be wandering on private property talking to trees.”
“She’s strange, like your Āmā.” Their father gave David a look, peering over the top of his glasses, as if his son would know exactly what he meant. “But she’s your sister. You’re the older brother. Take some–”
“Wait, we’re cutting down those trees today?” David asked, mouth full of sandwich.
His supervisor sighed, taking off his gloves and sitting down on the back of the truck bed. “Yeah, got a buyer for that wood, but it has to happen today.”
“Uh, I got to run an errand. I just need fifteen minutes.”
“Make it quick.”
He grabbed his backpack and jogged straight into the copse. The hollowed-out tree wasn’t hard to find. He remembered Ama’s watercolors. He still had a picture in his phone of her sitting by it with her easel. She never knew he had taken it.
He hesitated by the opening. Baba had found her lying in front of the tree, still and eyes closed as if sleeping. Maybe she had laid down there to rest. He had hoped she hadn’t fallen. She never seemed frail, not really, taking walks around the neighborhood, waving at people, and saying a throaty, “Hello!” One of the three words she knew in English.
In a lot of ways, David had wished he had found Ama. A kid shouldn’t find the corpse of their own parent. Before getting lost in his own thoughts, he quickly ducked into the hollow, but saw that someone had already cleaned everything out. Ama’s letters and drawings were gone.
Dana spent the next few days lying on the living room couch, a living corpse, sleeping when not at school. Her mother and father yelled at her to do her homework, which she did during lunch and breaks. They yelled at her to wash the dishes, which she did right before going to her bedroom to sleep for the night. They yelled at her to not be so sad, not because they were angry, but because they were worried.
“Leave her alone, Mama, Baba,” David said. They glared at him until he said, “I’ll talk to her.”
Problem solved, they left the kids to themselves. David sat on the sofa next to Dana, but did not say a word.
Days after Ama’s funeral, Susan would find Dana sleeping in the hollow of the eucalyptus tree, the sticky fallen leaves clinging to her jeans and jacket. “Why be so weird? And if weird, why so dirty?”
“The tree smells like Ama. She’d always talk to it, like an old friend.”
“Your Āmā is not a tree. That only happens in old stories, not modern ones.” Susan had stood there, blocking the sun, waiting for Dana to shiver. “Stop playing this game. Come home.”
“It’s not a game. I just want to remember Ama.”
Dana woke from the dream memory to darkness, broken only by David’s phone, the screen casting angular shadows onto his face, obscuring his eyes like a stretched out skull. “You all right?” he asked.
“I dreamed about her.”
David dropped the phone, plunging the room into dimness, the streetlights outside bathing them in a pale glow like an anemic moon. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t fast enough.”
“Not your fault. I shouldn’t have left them there.”
“No, it was Ama’s tree. It was your tree. You knew her better than any of us, even Dad.”
“But I didn’t. I couldn’t talk to her. Everything I knew about her was in her drawings.”
David sat with her in silence until they both fell asleep once more.
Riding her bike to school (instead of getting a ride from David or her parents) meant Dana could meander coming home, get lost on purpose, to put off going back to that empty house. She felt like a video game character, looking out from a camera PoV, looking down to see hands, legs, a body that belonged to her, that she controlled, but didn’t feel like she inhabited.
Sometimes something would drag her back into her body. She’d hear, in the crowd, someone saying, “Xiăo háizi.” A drawing or painting with a swoop like how Ama would paint. Room temperature water on her fingertips. The savory unctuous taste of zòngzi. And Dana would have to push it away just to keep composed the way her parents wanted her to be.
But now, on her bike, she smelled the piney, medicinal scent of fresh cut wood.
It came at her all at once, a spritz, tears, gasps, and she squealed to a stop, vision blurred to a smear, standing in the middle of the street, straddling her bike. Dana hoped a car wouldn’t run her over, but if someone in the neighborhood saw her, or worse, approached her to ask if she was all right, she hoped a car would run her over.
She dragged the bike over and sat down on the curb, the bike a reassuring weight. She felt she might simply lift up and blow away, a helium-filled balloon of grief. Lucky for her, her brother had hidden a packet of tissues in her backpack.
She took a deep breath, trying to fill herself, and smelled eucalyptus again. This time, instead of kicking her heart out of her chest, it sharpened her vision. She stood up, hopped on her bike and rode down the street, sniffing the air, the scent strengthening. This time, she ignored cars and pedestrians, confident that they wouldn’t run into her.
Rolling up to a house, Dana froze on the front porch. A stranger’s house. Her parents’ voices filled her head. Don’t bother these people. Don’t bring strangers into your weirdness. Ama, however, would proudly knock on the door and say, with a smile,
Dana’s voice echoed a bit, but no answer. She shouted a second, a third time, and then pressed the doorbell.
“Just leave it on the porch,” a voice shouted.
“What?” Looking down, she saw a couple of brown boxes. “Oh, no, I’m not a delivery… person. Do you have a eucalyptus tree?”
The artisanal woodworker came walking around from the back, his arms lightly besprinkled in wood dust, his mouth a frown, and one eyebrow arched up in suspicion. “No, but I have some chopped wood though.”
“How much do you want for it?”
“If you are willing to haul it away, you can take it for free.”
“Really?” Dana channeled the voice of her mother. “Why? What’s wrong with it?”
The woodworker opened his mouth, and the hairs on the back of Dana’s head stood on end, waiting for him to retract the deal of free, but he instead motioned for her to follow.
When she walked to his backyard and his shop, she saw the wood on a patch of dirt slowly soaking up the pungent black inky oil oozing out of the grain.
“It just stains everything. Like ink,” the woodworker said.
Dana reached out and pressed a palm against the wood, feeling the rough porousness and the slick, room temperature, inky sap. She pulled away and saw her palm unmarked, save where the wood poked into her skin.
“I’ll take all of it.”
What the woodworker meant by “haul away” was to take the wood all at once, not one log at a time via bike. It was on the third round-trip of the day, with Dana drenched in sweat, that David noticed the slowly growing pile of wood in their backyard. With a really loud, exasperated sigh, he dragged her into the company truck, and together, they silently hauled the wood away in one final go.
Mama and Baba didn’t comment either (well, once, to mutter “more weirdness” to each other) and left Dana alone to her new project.
A corpse in a copse, Dana thought, riding back home from school. A corpus of her letters and drawings.
She shook her head to dislodge the macabre thought, but Ama’s laughter tickled her ears. She wouldn’t think this morbid. Dana remembered Ama playing dead on the playground and startling her with a roar. One of her earliest memories. She’d cried and thrown a little temper tantrum then, but now, she couldn’t help but join in with the remembered laughter.
She rolled up the driveway, hopped off her bike in motion, and jogged alongside around the side of the house to the backyard. She propped her bike against the wall and stepped toward the little shrine in the back corner of the tiny backyard. She bowed three times, at first quickly, as if to get it over with, then slowed down to properly thank the Ink Goddess.
The black, inky patterns on the wood shifted, bubbling and diffusing in a slow, lazy meandering drift. In the center, in front of the photo of Ama, sat a bowl filled with black ink. Dana ran into the house, grabbed a bowl from the counter and a zòngzi from the fridge, paused, tossed the zòngzi in the bowl and the bowl into the microwave for a brief minute.
Running back out, she swapped the bowl of ink for the zòngzi, cutting the twine with the broken blade of her multitool. Cradling it with both hands, careful not to spill the ink, she returned to the house and set it down on the dining table next to Ama’s brushes and papers. A corpus of our letters and drawings.
She picked up a horsehair brush, dipped it into the bowl, pressed the bristles against the side to drain the ink, and paused over the blank sheet, staring at it intently, carving out the pictures from the white space with her eyes, the next page for the Corpus of the Ink Goddess.
About the Author
While being rained on near Portland, Oregon, Monte Lin writes, edits, and plays tabletop roleplaying games. Clarion West got him to write about dying universes, dreaming mountains, and singularities made of anxieties. He can be found tweeting Doctor Who news, Asian-American diaspora discourse, and his board game losses at @Monte_Lin.
About the Narrator
Rebecca Wei Hsieh (she/her) is a Taiwanese/Taiwanese American actor, writer, translator, and sensitivity reader based in NYC. Having grown up across several continents, her work focuses on the interplay between Asia and the Asian diaspora, gender, queerness, and mental illness, and has been featured in outlets like We Need Diverse Books, Wear Your Voice Magazine, Book Riot, and The Dot and Line. She has a BA in theatre and Italian studies from Wesleyan University, and you can follow her attempts to use her liberal arts degree at rwhsieh.com
About the Artist
Katherine Inskip is the editor for Cast of Wonders. She teaches astrophysics for a living and spends her spare time populating the universe with worlds of her own. You can find more of her stories and poems at Motherboard, the Dunesteef, Luna Station Quarterly, Abyss & Apex and Polu Texni.