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A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts
A Collection of Deliciously Frightening Tales
By Ying Chang Compestine, Coleman Polhemus
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2009 Ying Chang Compestine
All rights reserved.
LONG AGO, IN 200 B.C.E, there was a small village called Bright Stars situated in the northern mountains of China, along the midsection of the Great Wall. The winter was harsh when this section of the wall was constructed. Heavy snowdrifts blocked the narrow paths through the rugged mountains. For months, supply caravans could not make it through to the workforce.
That winter, some of the workers mysteriously vanished. Everyone was puzzled as to where they had gone: There were no roads out, and with no food, the escapees would surely perish in the cold. Desperate to stop the disappearances, the camp master divided the workers into small teams and issued an order to punish the entire unit if one member deserted.
Despite food shortages, workers were forced to labor day and night in two shifts to meet the emperor's demands — one mile of wall per day. Everyone struggled to survive.
However, one inn — the Double Happy — never seemed to run out of food. It served the best steamed dumplings anyone had ever tasted. No one knew how the owner, Mu, a portly and crafty middle-aged man, got the supplies to make his dumplings so delicious.
After the winter storms cut off the caravans, Mu raised his prices daily. Even so, hungry workers waited in long lines outside his inn. Everyone talked enviously about the fortune he was making.
One cold night after the inn had closed, two starving workers broke into the kitchen. They hoped to steal some food before heading to their evening shift. The taller one, with a rope tied around his bulky cotton jacket, tiptoed in behind his friend, whose ragged fur hat covered most of his face.
Full moonlight shone through the tall windows, leaving streaks of illumination on the kitchen floor. In the far corner, white mist hovered above a huge bamboo steamer on the stove. The scrumptious smell aroused their hunger and made them weak. As they reached for the dumplings, they heard scraping and chopping sounds from behind a cabinet next to the stove. They pushed the cabinet away from the wall, revealing a small door. Fur Hat opened it. Instantly, the pungent odors of garlic, ginger, pickled cabbage, meat, and blood repelled them back a step. Mu, the innkeeper, stood silhouetted in the yellow light of an oil lamp. With a cleaver in each hand he hacked at a dark mound of red meat on a heavy rectangular table. Near him, in a pile on the floor, were arms and legs! Most of them had had the meat stripped from their white bones.
When Mu noticed Fur Hat and Cotton Jacket, he waved his cleavers about wildly and ran toward them. Fur Hat was a trained kung-fu fighter. He pushed his friend aside and swept his left leg across the innkeeper's face, knocking him to the ground. The innkeeper's knives whipped narrowly past Fur Hat. The blood from them drew inky red lines on the wooden floor.
The two workers dragged Mu across the room. Cotton Jacket took the rope from his waist and tied the innkeeper's hands to the table's thick legs.
"You watch over him," Fur Hat said as he ran toward the door. "I'll go report this."
"No!" begged the innkeeper. "Please, I'll make you both wealthy. You will never go hungry again."
Fur Hat stopped, glanced at the flesh on the cutting board, and spat at the innkeeper. "How dare you offer me this disgusting meat! I would rather die of hunger — "
"No, no! Of course not! I have roasted chicken, smoked fish, and rice cakes for you." He jerked his chin toward the dark corner. "There, in those jars."
Cotton Jacket reached into one of the jars and took out a chicken wing. He bit into it. Thick brown sauce ran down his large hand. The innkeeper's face lit up. "Well, how about untying me and we'll talk."
Cotton Jacket stopped stuffing his pockets with preserved duck eggs. "How did you kill them?" He tried hard not to look at the bloody pile as he asked.
"Easy!" A grin emerged upon the innkeeper's face. "Like drunk chickens. Whenever I ran out of meat, I offered my last customers some strong sorghum wine. None of them ever refused, and they drank it like water. Once they passed out, I slit their throats. Most of them didn't even wake."
"You devil!" Cotton Jacket ran over and kicked the innkeeper in his side. The innkeeper moaned sharply.
"We can't be late for our shift," said Fur Hat, as he grabbed pieces of salted fish from a jar. "Let's decide what to do with him in the morning."
Ignoring the innkeeper's pleas, they moved the cabinet back into place, locked the door, and headed out into the cold.
That night, a section of the wall collapsed, burying a team of workers alive. Fur Hat and Cotton Jacket were among them.
The next morning, people were puzzled as to why the Double Happy didn't open. Three days later, a group of hungry workers broke in. They ate everything they could find, including the rock-hard, frozen dumplings in the steamer.
Before long, they noticed many large rats with shiny eyes and wiry whiskers, scurrying out from behind the cabinet. Each carried a strip of dark red meat. The workers moved the cabinet and found the door. Thinking they'd discovered a secret cache of food, they crowded into the room and then quickly fought to get out, shrieking and vomiting as they ran away.
Inside, the innkeeper's trussed body slumped against the table. Scattered near him were the clothes, shoes, and bones of the missing workers.
Large gray rats ran up and down the innkeeper's body, tearing at the remaining tattered organs. Part of his left cheek was missing — and his face was frozen in a primal scream.
That was the last day anyone ever entered the inn, until many years later ...
In the shadows of the Great Wall stood the ancient brick building once known as the Double Happy. Its large roof floated majestically over its red brick base. The front door opened to the east, facing a long stretch of the Great Wall, winding through the imposing mountains.
Whenever the young people in the village of Bright Stars asked about the building, the elders grew nervous and whispered that the place was haunted. No matter how relentlessly the youths inquired, their elders would say nothing more.
Bright Stars remained a quiet and forgotten place until a successful businessman, Jiang, came to visit his uncle. Tall and skinny, Jiang wore a pair of gold-framed glasses and gleaming black leather shoes — symbols of modern success. His uncle, a small, dried-up man with crooked teeth, proudly introduced Jiang to everyone as his wealthy nephew from Beijing.
He took Jiang to the Great Wall because there was really nothing else worth seeing in this backward village. As they approached the wall, Jiang saw the sinister building standing in the last rays of sunlight.
"Whose house is this?" asked Jiang.
"No one's. It's haunted," said Uncle.
"Haunted?" Jiang laughed dismissively and marched up to the building.
"Don't get too close." Reluctantly, Uncle followed, for he didn't want to upset his rich city nephew.
"Look at its solid condition!" Jiang stroked the brick wall in awe. "You don't see thick walls like these anymore. Slap on some fresh paint, replace a few broken shingles, a couple of warped floorboards, and I could convert this relic into an authentic inn!"
Jiang thought of himself as a smart businessman who wasn't afraid to take risks. After China instituted free-market reforms and allowed private businesses, he'd made a small fortune in real estate and restaurants.
Uncle desperately tried to persuade Jiang that opening a business in Beijing would be much more profitable. No one would be interested in coming to this out-of-the-way place. But Jiang had set his mind on making a profit off this old haunted house.
Even though Jiang offered high wages, the biggest problem was finding laborers willing to work on his project. A few young villagers were tempted. But when the elders heard them discussing it, they glowered.
"Unspeakable things were done in that house. Don't be part of it. That young man is going to pay for his stupidity."
At last, Jiang had to resort to calling his office in Beijing and having them send out a crew of laborers. Repairing the inn proved to be more difficult than expected. The roof and windows had to be replaced. Furniture had to be bought and rooms redecorated. Each day, while the laborers worked, villagers young and old gathered outside and watched. Two months later, the new inn was ready for business. Jiang placed an ad in an English-Chinese tourism magazine in Beijing:
LOOKING FOR ADVENTURE? COME STAY IN AN OLD HAUNTED INN NEXT TO THE GREAT WALL. EQUIPPED WITH MODERN COMFORTS WHILE RETAINING ITS ORIGINAL CHARM. 50% DISCOUNT FOR THE FIRST TEN BOOKINGS.
When the magazine hit the stands, Jiang's office received a few inquiries, but only one booking — from an American named Dave. Dave was a college student who had come to Beijing to improve his language skills and was hoping to see some of the authentic old China. He was excited to stay at a haunted inn and looked forward to having an adventure that he could boast about to his friends back in the States.
After a ten-hour ride along bumpy, narrow mountain roads, the bus dropped Dave off at a dirt path. He was greeted by a group of villagers who had heard about his arrival. No foreigner had ever come to Bright Stars before, so the villagers were fascinated by Dave's blond hair and found his six-foot height astonishing. A few brave children timidly accepted the sticks of gum Dave offered them. They led him to the inn.
Once there, Jiang warmly greeted his first visitor and apologized for his driver missing him at the bus stop. He treated Dave to his best room on the first floor, next to his.
The chef that Jiang had hired from Beijing had not yet arrived, so Jiang took Dave to his uncle's house for dinner. Uncle lived in a one-story mud house divided into two rooms.
Uncle greeted them warmly at his door. Giggling children with dirty faces crowded behind a big maple tree nearby until Jiang shooed them away.
It took Dave a while to adjust to the acrid stench of sweat and unfiltered pipe tobacco. However, he was delighted to visit a local's home and practice his Chinese. The wooden furniture was rough and stark. Along the far wall was a typical northern farmer's kang, built from mud bricks with a stove burning underneath. It served as a bench during the day and as a bed at night. A short-legged table piled high with food occupied the center of the spacious kang. On it were lion's head meatballs, sweet-and-sour ribs, egg foo yung, meat dumplings, and other dishes — many that Dave had never seen before.
Jiang's uncle had spent days preparing an eight-course meal for this special occasion. A round earthen pot rested on the big brick stove that sat in the middle of his living room. Escaping steam rattled the pot's lid. It smelled meaty.
Throughout the meal, Jiang and his uncle kept stuffing food into Dave's bowl. By the end of the meal Dave thought he would explode like a firecracker. Still, acting as a good Chinese host, Jiang's uncle insisted Dave take a bowl of dumplings with him for breakfast.
Back at the inn, Dave said good night to Jiang and retired to his room. He set the bowl of dumplings on a small table near the door, and went to sleep.
A rhythmic knocking awakened him in the middle of the night. Full moonlight shone through the tall windows, leaving streaks of illumination on the floor. Bleary-eyed, Dave stumbled out of bed, accidentally tipping over the bowl. Cursing under his breath, he was picking up the food when he heard scraping and chopping sounds.
Curious and slightly miffed at being awakened, he followed the noises down the dimly lit hall to the kitchen. The rhythmic knocking grew louder. Dave gently pushed against the thick door; it opened slightly.
In the moonlight a horrid, decrepit creature was chopping up chunks of dark red meat with two cleavers. It looked up and spotted Dave.
Whipping its cleavers about, it gave a piercing scream and charged at Dave, who tore away from the kitchen, down the hall, and into his room. Dave slammed the door shut and jumped into bed, huddling against the wall.
Wham! Bang! The cleavers shattered the door into splinters. The creature crashed inside, growling menacingly.
Dave shook uncontrollably as the creature loomed closer, filling the room with the horrible stench of rotting meat. The creature raised its knives and Dave squeezed his eyes shut.
Then came a delighted cry and the knives clattered to the floor. Dave forced himself to look. The creature crouched over the spilled dumplings, hungrily devouring them.
Gathering his strength, Dave jumped through the window and dashed down the dirt path to the village, hollering wildly.
Hearing Dave's cries, the villagers stumbled out of their homes and watched in silence, the elders glancing knowingly at one another. Dave slowed to a halt when he was confronted by Jiang's uncle. Between gasps he told Uncle in broken Chinese what had happened at the inn.
No matter how persistently Uncle begged the villagers, no one was willing to go check on Jiang in the dark. Dave spent the remainder of the restless night at Uncle's house.
At daybreak, the villagers gathered in the street. They brought sticks, shovels, cleavers — any sharp or blunt objects they could find. Dave and Uncle led the way, shuffling nervously toward the inn. Uncle wielded a long machete.
The front door of the inn stood closed. Uncle called out loudly. No answer. Everyone joined in, their shouts echoing from the tall mountains surrounding the village.
At last the door flew open. Jiang appeared in his silk robe, looking confused.
"What's happening?" he asked as he rubbed his eyes.
"Did you hear my screams last night?" asked Dave.
"What screams?" Jiang walked out of the inn. "I have lived in the city my whole life. The noise there is louder than any scream you could dream up."
Uncle shook his head and said, "You shouldn't have opened this inn."
Dave quickly told Jiang what had happened.
Jiang led the group inside. They couldn't find any sign of the ghost, the dark red meat, or the cleavers. If not for the shattered door to Dave's room, Jiang would have thought Dave made up the whole story.
Jiang muttered, "I can't afford to let this great business opportunity be ruined by a ragged ghost. If the dumplings stopped him last night, I will leave more out tonight. Maybe that's all he wants."
The villagers whispered uncertainly.
Jiang straightened his robe and stepped onto the wooden chair near the front door. "Go home, everyone!" He waved his arms. "Make dumplings. I will pay a good price for them." He turned to Dave and said, "If you stay I will offer you free room and board."
Dave thought for a moment and nodded. He was scared, but what a story he would have to tell back home!
At sunset, Jiang stood at the door, holding a stack of money. Next to him were two big baskets. Villagers arrived in small groups, carrying dumplings in bowls, steamers, and baskets. Jiang handed out money like free movie tickets. It took no time for him to fill his two big baskets. All the villagers were thrilled by the generous pay — except for a group of older people who stood at a distance, whispering darkly among themselves.
Dave helped Jiang spread hundreds of dumplings, surrounding the outside of the inn. Then they locked the doors and windows.
The first part of the evening, they stayed in the kitchen. Jiang turned on all the lights and paced around the room. Dave was the only one who ate the beef noodles and drank the green tea that Uncle had brought for them. "Soon, my chef will be here," said Jiang, deep in thought. "He can make the dumplings, and I won't have to buy them from the villagers."
Dave ignored Jiang and peeked through the curtain. Clouds drifted slowly across the full moon. At midnight, exhausted, Dave went to his room and lay in bed, listening attentively. Fall wind rustled aspen leaves across the ground; apple tree branches gently tapped against the windows. Soon he drifted off to sleep.
Dave was awakened in the early morning by Jiang's yelling, "The dumplings are gone! It worked! It worked!"
The news spread across the village. By lunchtime, villagers were lined up with dumplings to sell. After filling his two baskets, Jiang had to turn away the rest.
The second night, Dave and Jiang, cameras in hand, peeked through the curtains, waiting for the ghost. But it was a cloudy night and too dark to see anything. Worn out, they dozed off, slumped around the kitchen table. When they awoke, the morning sun shone on the front porch.
Jiang and Dave ran outside. "It worked again!" Jiang jumped up and down like a child. "That's all the ghost wants! Dumplings!" Jiang pulled out his cell phone and called the Beijing tourism magazine. The following day, a big ad appeared.
A TERRIFYING GHOST HAS BEEN SIGHTED AT THE ALL-NEW HAUNTED INN! AN AMERICAN BOY HAS PROVEN IT TO BE SAFE! COME JOIN THE EXCITEMENT!
Under the ad was a picture of Dave smiling, holding a big bowl of dumplings. Calls poured into Jiang's Beijing office.
Jiang's chef arrived with the first busload of guests. In the following days, more busloads of tourists came, with or without reservations. The inn was overflowing with well-dressed, loud city tourists. Some were so desperate to stay they told Jiang that they would happily sleep on the floor.
Excerpted from A Banquet for Hungry Ghosts by Ying Chang Compestine, Coleman Polhemus. Copyright © 2009 Ying Chang Compestine. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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