Excerpt from FOLKLORE
Lightning struck the tree in front of her, splitting it down the middle. Sparks and fire. The tree burst into flames. A black figure stepped out from the burning tree, naked and dripping with a dark sweat. Steam rose from his chiseled body. He was larger than most men, with jet-black eyes, and he looked more like a creature than a man. The ground burned beneath his feet. Neng knew that this being was not human, but something as old as the earth. Its name was at the tip of her tongue. She felt drawn to the spirit, as if they knew each other.
The ancient spirit spoke with a strong, heavy voice, “You summoned me.”
Neng trembled at the sound. She reached her shaking hand out, showing the ring in her bleeding palm. “I’ve always known you were real.” Her voice fluttered. “I want to make a trade.”
“The price is your life, body, and soul. My bride,” said the ancient spirit.
“You can have me, if you grant all my wishes.”
The ancient spirit seemed to like her determination. He was most excited to know about her selfish desires, which were riddled with grief and revenge. He peered deep into her eyes, and simply said, “Name them.”
“I want power. More power than you have ever granted to any bride you’ve taken. I want to create a curse, a drop of blood between lovers that will always end in misfortune or death. And I want to collect the souls of men. Any man I want, starting with Blong Lor.”
The ancient spirit replied, “I accept the trade.” It extended its muscular arm out to Neng. “You will have everything you asked for, my bride.”
Never had Neng been more certain of herself than in that moment. She touched his hand with her fingertips, accepting his offer. The flesh of her fingers sizzled as she touched his burning skin. She flinched and then quickly adjusted to the pain. The ancient spirit grinned and placed the gold ring onto Neng’s left hand, burning every piece of flesh he touched. Neng welcomed the torment.
The ancient spirit led Neng to the smoldering charcoal tree. Together, they sank into the body of the dead wood.
Thousands of years ago, when the stars were young, in the times of gods and demons, old magic and ghostly encounters, the spirits were envious of humans, and fate often tested lovers. All the odds were against Xai and Sia, two lovers compelled to go on a very miraculous journey.
The story began with a wedding. Half-a-dozen wooden carriages traveled on a dirt path through a thick forest. Xai and Sia were dressed in black and red attire, dripping with silver accents as they rode in an open wooden carriage. The horses pulling them were both white, except the one in front of Sia was fairer and more decorated. In front of Xai and Sia were two people who shared a similar-sized carriage, and who were dressed almost identically to them—the groomsman and the bridesmaid. They had also been gifted with a chest of silver bricks and jewelry. The rest of the wedding guests and family traveled in smaller carriages behind the newlyweds.
Xai and Sia had both turned twenty the week they were wed. They mirrored one another: fair skin, peachy lips, kind brown eyes and pitch-black hair. Even their names were similar.
On the path to his village, Xai noticed the bridesmaid trying to hide her tears while the groomsman scanned the woods nervously. Xai leaned towards his young wife and asked, “What’s wrong with the bridesmaid and groomsman? They seem unhappy.”
Sia leaned closer and said, “You don’t know? They’ve been like that since we left the wedding from my mother’s house. They’re afraid.”
“Afraid of what?” asked Xai.
Sia looked around and then lowered her voice. “Spirits.”
“Bridesmaids and groomsmen are decoys for evil and vengeful spirits that often snatch a bride or a groom. That’s why they lead the way ahead of the bride and groom. It’s tradition,” explained Sia. “Don’t be afraid, it’s just superstition.”
“Did you tell the bridesmaid about the superstition?”
“She stayed with me for days. We ran out of things to talk about.”
“It’s also her responsibility to watch you, so other men won’t steal you away. She can’t do that if she’s in hysterics.”
“She did very well. She never left my side, not even when I was bathing,” said Sia, jokingly.
“Well, you have thoroughly scared her. She must have told my groomsman. Look at him, he’s paranoid,” said Xai.
The groomsman looked fearfully over his shoulder.
“The bridesmaid is crying,” Sia pointed out. “Why are they suddenly more terrified than before? They weren’t like that when we traveled through the mountains.”
“We’re close to the village. The locals say these woods are home to the spirits,” said Xai. “Folklore around here is full of cautionary tales, and the people believe in them. So, we keep out of these woods.”
Sia pretended to leave. Once she had cleared the area, she hid in the bushes and waited. The cool air unexpectedly got colder. She looked to the back of her wrist where the hairs were standing up on their own. Seeing the braided red bracelet gave her a sense of security. The freezing air brought with it a mist, which soon became a thick fog. Sia touched the silver pendant around her neck, which brought her reassurance of protection. She braced herself. All she could hear was the beating of her heart, growing louder and faster. Deep down, she knew something extraordinary was about to happen. If Xai did not believe in spirits and folklore, then why did he request a last meal after his burial?
Suddenly, a woman’s singing echoed in the air, “Da, der, ler. Da, der, ler. Humans stake the strength, spirits stake to break and end.
The soft ground moves right into two piles and bends.”
Sia saw nothing, yet her ears heard the inexplicable voice. She began to wonder if she should stay or run. Was this a spirit?
The voice continued to speak in riddles. Then, the spirit of a woman floated at the foot of Xai’s grave. Sia could not shut her eyes. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. Her teeth chattered, and her entire body shook. This was the most unnatural thing she’d ever seen—a spirit.
The spirit had long strands of silver hair that were slowly turning dark and growing thicker by the second. Her skin looked burnt and decayed, but it was healing by the second. Mahogany stains sullied her once-purple gown, and there were black pearls over the dark embroidery; the black pearls might have been ivory once. On her head sat a black crown draped with a long, sheer veil that covered her face. She looked like the bride of a demon, and she had an ominous aura. Her skeletal arms were raised. On her left hand was a golden ring, diamond-shaped with a seal on the face. Her crooked red lips separated, and she spoke once more.
“Da, der, ler, fall. Da, der, ler, fall. Humans stake to break and end. Spirits stake the strength. The soft ground moves in two directions. Xai awakens!”
It was a spell to bring Xai back from the dead. By this time, the spirit had miraculously regenerated some solid features with a fully formed face, long dark black hair, and skin. She had claws at the tips of her fingers, like a wild animal. Her skin was still decaying on the surface in random patches, but she was strikingly beautiful. She looked ancient and regal. She possessed the aura of a thousand-year-old soul. Every grain of soil and material that pulled too close to her energy field quickly disintegrated.
The dirt over Xai’s grave broke open. Xai rose from the hole in the earth. He stepped out of the grave and shook the dirt off his body. Strong as the day he lived. Stronger now that he was dead.