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That afternoon, Mother once again started telling casual stories about this and that. Vaguely taking in the odd word (“land”, “borrowing”, etc.) my drowsy self wasn’t overly enthused. However, when the hero of her tale got rich after raising a “ghost dog”, I instantly livened up, asking non-stop for the details. Mother found this strange, asking: “Why are you so interested all of a sudden?” I then told her about a ghost story I had heard. Her reaction was just as I expected. Both of us came out in goosebumps.

I’d been told this story about half a year earlier by some fellow medical interns. One of their China Medical University classmates had experienced something strange at the school’s Peikang campus. Back when she lived in an allocated dormitory, this student would often hear a loud, crisp bell ringing late at night. Normally she’d pay it no mind, but this sound was unfortunately hard to ignore. She’d fall asleep with great difficultly, only to be woken again. She spent long periods in a state of half-consciousness, becoming sleep deprived as a result. When asked if she’d heard the sound too, her roommate said she had not.

Concerned that this dormitory might be too old fashioned, the student had looked at pictures of in advance of registration. At first, she hadn’t troubled herself with the rumour that it was haunted, as told to her by a senior female classmate. But after seeing these photographs, she’d had an ominous premonition. She mentally prepared for a computer switching itself on, a hand behind the curtain, a white-clad, long-haired ghost girl in the mirror… All of it seemed possible. She told herself that she’d never done anything shameful in her life, and had nothing to fear. Sure enough, the first few nights in the dorm were uneventful. Until that strange bell started to ring.

Behind the girl’s dormitory in which she lived was a basketball court said to have previously been a morgue. Partially because of this, she became increasingly worried about the ringing, which seemed to be coming from this direction. “You really haven’t heard it? Sounds like it’s coming from the basketball court behind us.” But the roommate firmly shook her head, fixing her with an odd expression. “Please don’t bring this up again, alright…? I’ll get scared.” Although just a sliver of moonlight shone through the crack in the curtains, she could make out her roommate’s face, deathly pale in the pitch darkness. The dorm room was abnormally quiet, save for the dinging of the bell. Despite feeling like her heart would soon jump into her throat, the student softly agreed, and both roommates hid under their quilts as if making an unspoken pact.

She didn’t sleep all night, of course. Only when the light began to stream in through the window did the bell stop ringing. She increasingly dreaded nightfall. Often, when the bell wasn’t ringing and she could finally relax, the sound would emerge like a curse, putting her on edge. To start with, she’d put in earphones and listen to music all night. But this made her all the more anxious - she actually worried even more about whether the bell was ringing or not. Even when listening to what was very clearly a string quartet, she always felt like she could hear it. In the end, she made a special visit to the bookshop in town to buy earplugs and earmuffs. She waited for darkness to fall, then, as if facing the territory of a great enemy, put the earplugs in and earmuffs on. Seeing this strange behaviour, her roommate didn’t dare address her. Each student faced her own computer screen in this tiny, cramped, not even five-p’ing room, so quiet that not even their breathing was audible.

However, this peace only lasted for three short days.

One evening, the roommate didn’t come back. According to her ordinary schedule, she would eat dinner, then return to the dorm with a hand-mixed drink at around eight o’clock before immersing herself in a Japanese drama. Even if she was on duty that day, the dorm wasn’t far from the hospital, so she’d still usually be on call in their room. This was really because there weren’t any good shops to visit around the campus, which was surrounded by fields and forests in every direction. Even the relatively lively Hsin-chieh hamlet nearby only had a few traditional family-run shops scattered around. This was because Hsin-chieh was relatively new (as suggested by its name, literally meaning “New Street”). In the eighth year of the Chia Ch’ing reign, floods had raged far and wide, prompting some major landlords to establish a marketplace on the high ground to the northwest of Peikang Street. Of course, the crowds there were nothing compared to the hordes of worshippers in the Chao T’ien Temple district. 

Where on earth was she? Could she have gone for a stroll around Chao T’ien Temple? She pondered what her roommate had said, but couldn’t recall anything about going out for fun. At 10 o’clock, no longer able to supress her panic, she found a few fellow students to discuss the matter with. One of them suggested she keep waiting – perhaps the roommate had gone out with her boyfriend. Although she wasn’t sure her roommate had a boyfriend, she didn’t dare press the issue, nodding wordlessly before heading back to her room. They obviously thought she was making a fuss over nothing. There was something stern and adult-like in their faces that made her feel inadequate.

She got under her covers, donning the earplugs and earmuffs. She was just on the point of drifting off when she heard the faint sound of the bell. It woke her instantly, and she sat bolt upright, staring at the all-too-empty neighbouring bed.

The ringing was coming from her roommate’s quilt. 

She stared at it for a long time before coming to her senses. Summoning her courage, the student approached the bed. When she peeled back the dishevelled sheet, she instantly recoiled a few feet, knocking her head against the ceiling.

The student was being watched by pair of yellowish eyes. In the darkness, she could make out the faint outline of a dog. Around its neck were two strangely-shaped bells, unlike the kinds sold in modern pet shops. Panting, the dog suddenly leapt off the bed, raised about a metre off the ground, onto the dusty millstone floor. Though its eyes remained fixed on her, she couldn’t see it clearly. It resembled a thick fog concealing the dark body of an animal. The word “spirit” instantly crossed her mind. Was it a spirit?

Despite her initial fear, she couldn’t detect any malice in the dog’s gaze. On the contrary, it had an amicable aura. Since her P’eng-p’eng had passed away two years earlier, every small dog reminded her of the old times. Her current feeling was closer to nostalgia than fear. Slowly, she climbed down from the bed. The dog was standing by the exit, just as P’eng-p’eng had done before. Deciding to take it for a walk, she opened the door.

When they left the dormitory building, the dog ran off towards the basketball court. Its bells rang incessantly. Following, she ran across the basketball court to the wilderness on the other side. As the dog nimbly jumped into piles of weeds and clusters of bushes, she hastily pushed past leaves and branches, trying to keep up. Her vision and hearing had become strangely acute. There was practically no light here, and a damp, mildewy smell permeated the air, making it difficult to breathe. Still, she saw it. A figure, embracing a thin tree trunk. Or rather, tree branches and leaves embracing a person, as if coaxing a baby to sleep.

Getting closer, she almost instantly recognised the figure as her roommate. As she swiftly took the girl in her arms, she pulled on a nearby branch, and the clear, melodious sound of the bell rang out. Supporting her roommate on her shoulder, she stared around wide-eyed, searching vigilantly for its source. Upon finding it, the student let out a faint, involuntary yelp - it was the dog’s bells. Hanging from a low branch, they were pushed down by the roommate’s body, emitting a dinging sound as the branch rebounded. The student turned her head, but the dog was already gone.

Had it really been a dog’s spirit? She had no choice but to believe her own eyes. Was it calling out to me? Did it want my help with something? As the bells continued to swing back and forth, they seemed to ring in agreement, full of spirituality. She formulated a plan in her head - tomorrow, she’d get to the bottom of this. She pressed her palms together, showed deference to the bells three times, then carried her roommate back to their dorm on her back. The bells didn’t ring again that night, granting her a rare good night’s sleep.

The next day at noon, the student made use of her lunch break to visit in Hsin-chieh’s Hsun T’ien Kung temple in search of assistance. Through a window, she explained the matter to an attendant seated in a narrow office. After listening to her story, the temple attendant frowned. He told her to wait a moment, then turned around to pick up the phone. Although not too fluent in Taiwanese Hokkien, she could more or less understand it. It transpired that the attendant suspected this incident was related to “that matter” of the Liu family, and was calling one of its descendants. But this descendant seemed none the wiser regarding the issue, pledging only to relay it to the family’s older generation before hanging up.

The temple attendant seemed curious nonetheless, and took her phone number, promising to call with any updates. When she returned that evening, the bells sure enough didn’t ring, so she considered the matter dealt with. The temple attendant didn’t end up calling, and she gradually forgot about the incident.

Two serene weeks later, the student was preparing to leave the campus when suddenly, in the middle of packing a suitcase, she recalled the strange events of that night. Wanting to understand the situation before her departure, she set off for Hsun T’ien Kung to find the temple attendant. As soon as he saw her, the attendant forcefully slapped his own forehead, chastising himself for losing the slip of paper with her number on it and being unable to contact her as a result.

“For this matter, we need virtuous achievements to come to their successful conclusion,” the attendant said with a joyous and heartfelt smile. “Tomorrow night’s the Gate-opening Ceremony. We’re going to use P’u-tu lanterns to send it home.” Send it home? She was slightly puzzled. The attendant then added: “It’s been searching for its owner all along.” When she heard his explanation, it all became clear.

As it turned out, that dog had once been the beloved pet of the Liu family grandfather. However, after the grandfather had passed away, the dog assumed that he was waiting for it in the woods they often visited. For some time, the Liu family constantly had a group of servants searching for their missing pet. However, they couldn’t look everywhere, and were ultimately forced to give up. Then, a year ago, the dog’s remains had finally been found in the woods. To commemorate it, the Liu family had tied its bells to the branch of a tree by its side.

Once the attendant had related the peculiar incident to the Liu family, the grandmother recalled something her husband had said near the end of his life: “The dog is dense. It can’t find me, and it certainly won’t come back home.” But now that the dog had died and become a spirit, it had surely been reunited with its master. Unfortunately, there weren’t any P’u-tu lanterns, so it hadn’t been able to find its way home. For this reason, the Liu family had decided to hang up P’u-tu lanterns on bamboo poles to guide the dog on its way.

After learning of this, the student begged the Liu family to let her hang up her own lantern. Although modern P’u-tu lanterns had swapped traditional oil lamps for light bulbs, they were still topped with conical bamboo hats and dangled joss paper from their sides. She wrote her full name on the lantern’s four-sided outer cover before delivering it to the Liu family. On the first evening of the seventh month, she saw her lantern hanging by the county highway from her dorm room window. Silently, she read the four-character phrase on each side to herself in Hokkien: “In the seventh month, the Fire Star passes the meridian”; “Celebration of the Ghost Festival”; “A heart full of sincere respect”; “Believe and serve, (her name), worship piously”. As the glow of the lantern lit up the previously pitch-black stretch of field and alleyway, she couldn’t help imagining the dog leaping into its master’s arms - and P’eng-p’eng leaping into hers. While her roommate had no recollection of the incident, the student would likely remember that spirit dog for the rest of her life.

I thought of this rumour because there was something special about that dog. Everyone in Peikang, and even the wider Yunlin area, had heard of it, and their mothers knew it like they knew their family valuables. At the turn of the last century, the Liu brothers started off as farmers, processing farm produce, trading grain and sugar cane, and loaning, buying and selling land. Following a rapid accumulation of assets, they became one of Peikang’s major landlord families. But this wasn’t a smooth process. Due to cash flow issues, they were forced to provide their ancestral land as security to the Liang Yu Hao shop on Li-tzu Street, and borrow 84 high officials.

Back then, “high officials” referred to foreign silver coinages, with Spanish pieces of eight (also known as the “Buddha currency”) being the most common of these. As one high official was worth seven qian and six fen in the silver currency of the time, their value was evident. It could be said that this was a brazen risk on the part of the Liu brothers.

But one day, the younger of the two (who would later become the grandfather of the family) encountered a small Taiwan dog close to starvation on the road. Taking pity on the animal, and not giving a thought to his family’s financial situation, he took it home to raise, earning a scolding from his elder brother. Neither of them expected that as soon as this dog joined the family, their business would take a sudden and miraculous turn for the better. In the end, the Liu brothers successfully reclaimed their land, and the legend of the “wealth-inviting dog” spread through the town.

It was only when this legend reached Mother’s hometown of Tounan that the term “ghost dog” emerged. Perhaps because this made it easier to believe in? I later heard one of those medical interns add that after the incident, their classmate had, like in the story, received a great deal of unexpected wealth. This prompted people to make far-fetched claims that the Righteous Dog General of Peikang’s I’min Temple was in fact this “ghost dog”. This student had apparently offered a secret sacrifice to the Righteous Dog General in an attempt to get rich and, not wanting to share this information with everyone, had instead told them this strange and nonsensical story, playing up her own integrity in the process. As for this afterword, neither of us took it seriously. Compared with people’s words, supernatural beings prove more substantial.

 

Published with generous support from Spotlight Taiwan, in association with the Leeds Centre for New Chinese Writing.

 



Chang Yu-Ko was a clinical physician before winning multiple prestigious awards for his television scripts in his mid-twenties. He later turned his hand to fiction and is now regarded as a rising star in Taiwanese literature. Whisper was originally published in Chinese in 2018 and is his English language debut.