From Chapter 1
Granny Zim had been quite popular in her younger days, but she was getting old and her tongue more tart with each passing year.
She had taken to retreating to Suanek’s Way, the narrow wicker bridge leading to the ancestral temple, when she wished to be alone. There she often sat, where no islander dared disturb her, and this particular day she reflected on age. There were times, especially during the cold months, when she had to soak her hands in hot water before she could play. And there were days when her scrawny butt hurt if she sat too long.
The time had come, she decided, to teach her last cohort of novices, choose her successor and retire while she was at the height of her powers. Another ten years might see time, that great enemy that no human defeated, retire her by force.
There was not a lot of pride left. Her looks had faded long ago, and her walk was beginning to resemble the crab that the dockside youths sometimes called her when they thought she couldn’t hear. By now most of the villagers had grown from birth to vigorous adulthood with her music, and all the remaining musicians called out for festivals, weddings, and the like, had been trained by her; it is sometimes said that even the most splendid art can become commonplace if experienced every day.
She summoned her daughter Linon, who was the village headwoman, and bade her put the word out before she could weaken and rescind it.
Having done so, she discovered that the sense of virtue lasted about two breaths before melancholy set in. She withdrew to the bridge again with her favorite seven-stringed guqin, and poured out a cascade of sound that rose above the rushing cataract from higher up the mountain as she let her mind wander to the past.
She had nothing to complain about, she told herself. It had been a good life. Longer than many had. She still had most of her teeth. Her memory was as strong as those teeth. So many fond memories, outweighing the inevitable griefs. The sharpest of those was still for her husband Lu Teg, lost at sea some twenty years now, in one of the great storms that swept over the ocean. He had always been a little absent, apt to become entranced by the flicker of a butterfly, or by a pod of dolphins dancing in the sea; he probably ought to have been a scholar or a painter, but he had inherited a fishing junk, and that was that.
He had loved her playing. As her fingers evoked his favorite melodies, she remembered him muttering vaguely once that where chaos and order meet, music is made. He was very drunk that day. And he actually said art, not music, but Granny Zim, who could not draw a stick figure and who could barely read, shrugged off art as something for scholars and nobles over in the western islands, where grabby kings and emperors lived—and, she added with a pious bow toward the kitchen god, may they stay there.
The sun had begun to top Kanda’s Peak when she became aware of an urgent need. She had to rock back and forth more than twice to haul her withered hindquarters up so she could visit the privy. But she had barely begun to get the rhythm going when she became aware that she had an audience.
“Who’s there?” she asked sharply.
The shadow at the edge of her vision vanished. Immediately she doubted her own eyesight, for truth was, it had begun getting more difficult to see in the dark. She waited a moment or two, then recommenced the process of rising, and retired for the night.
She could not sleep. Perhaps it was the decision she had made. Maybe it was that shadow, which she had been very certain had moved. Only without a form to move it.
She tossed restlessly on the bed platform until First Daughter-in-law heaved a sigh, and muttered, “Are you unwell, Mother Zim?”
First Daughter-in-law worked hard, and managed well, but she did have a temper like a bite of fresh chili, especially if her sleep was interrupted. Granny Zim returned a negative and forced herself to lie still, staring up at the beams holding up the ceiling, carved with auspicious signs barely discernable in the weak light of one moon rising and the other sinking.
Eventually she slept, and the next day early she withdrew once again to the bridge with her qin, though today was her usual day to practice the two-stringed uruh. She loved them all for their different qualities, but it was the qin that provided a conduit for the rapid waters of her emotions.
She settled down, removed the hand-warmer she had carried up to the bridge, then warmed her fingers from within as she tuned the strings. She closed her eyes, letting her fingers choose the melody they wished to play. She knew that instrument so well, made by her young hands so long ago, that she never had to look at the strings.
To all appearances she was lost in the entrancing melodia, but she was actually listening to the sounds around her: the rush of the cataract below, the buzzing of small insects, the rustle of wind in the trees that clung to the rocky bank.
Patience at last rewarded her when she heard a sound that she could not quite describe, except that it was not the wind or the water, the trees or the insects. She opened her eyes in its direction, and caught a shadow dissipating like vapor.
“I saw you,” she said, and kept playing.
There was no recurrence. She was alone, then and for the following days as the news of Granny Zim’s last audition flew from village to village, and over the water to the three tiny islands with whom there was much trade and intermarriage.
A few days before the gathering up at the temple, where the auditions were always held, she sensed that almost-sound again. No one on the entire island had dared to disturb her at the bridge for many years. But here was a small figure, round of face, black pits for eyes. Everything else looked like a child from poor folk, except for the hair that wisped to smoke at the ends.
This was a demon.
The island had charms against demon swarms and infestations, and there were ways to smite demons back to their realm. Most people hated and feared them. Granny Zim had, too. The fire demon that had manifested to her great-grandmother had been terrifying, an early memory that Granny Zim had never forgotten.
She did not know much about demons, though over the years she had heard a lot. She and her husband had talked about these things, when they were alone on the water, fishing for the family, or sitting up on the bridge while she practiced, during the months when the men were not at sea. She had come to the conclusion that talk about demons was similar to geomancy and augury, in that there was a lot of rumor taken as truth, but there was also some truth to be found, if more difficult to discern.
One truth she had accepted was that demons were not human. To her, that meant assuming they had human desires could be a dangerous thing.
Another truth? There were many kinds, drawn to this world to gain Essence, which to demons was life and blood and sustenance. Some—the most terrible—were drawn to the Essence spent in battles and war and fresh blood. Some, to fire Essence. Others, to the slow Essence breathed out through certain trees. There was even Essence available in foods, which everyone knew because of the offerings put out at funerals, and anniversaries of death days. Someone took the Essence of these offerings—one always hoped it was the departed relative, lingering until the new year, whence they would cross the bridge of two moons to be judged by the King of the Underworld, and reincarnated.
There was even a little Essence in simple ingredients that made up foods, though the demons drawn to kitchens most often were merely imps, easy to dispel with kitchen charms before they could spoil the produce.
Perhaps this demon was drawn to the Essence of music.
Did demons understand spoken language? “What do you want?” she asked.
The demon dissolved.
Granny Zim recommenced playing, alone for the remainder of the day.
Each day thereafter, she worked with a different instrument; when the demon returned, its form was more solid. It almost looked human.
Granny Zim looked at the expressionless round face, and it looked back. This time, deep in the black pits of those eyes, she discerned a red glow, like a smoldering cinder.
“You’re a child, I see. Or, you’ve taken the form of a child? Girl or boy?”
A gruff, smoky little voice asked, “Which one are you?”
“I was a girl, long ago. Now…eh, hard to say.” Granny Zim laughed.
“What’s the difference?”
“Ayah, that is not always so easy to define. Let’s start simple. Do you put out a fire or make a river when you pee?”
Granny Zim accepted that, played a chord, and thought.
Presently, the gruff little voice said, “I’ll be one too.”
“That does make things simpler. Next, do you have a name?” And, when there was no answer, Granny Zim said, clearly, “If you want music, you will have to have a name, and learn how to keep your hair from turning to smoke. Also?” She tapped her eyelids. “These give you away.”
The demon dissolved into smoke and vanished.