Around three thousand years ago, the Shang kings turned to their dead ancestors for help at times like these. The dead, they believed, were powerful. Evidence of this was all around them storms gathered from frothy clouds, drooping and meagre crops, victories in vicious frontier wars: all could be attributed to the unpredictable justice of the dead, moving between the seen and the unseen.
To appease their ancestors, the kings offered sacrifices, slaughtering scores of convicts and slaves, and transforming fields of oxen into seas of cloying blood and wild flies. Yet this did not always solve their problems, and, when rains continued, battles stalled and queens became barren, they sought to commune more directly with the dead, to ask them how much sacrifice was enough. They turned to animal bones in order to learn how to tame the future. Their questions, for which one of the first written examples of Chinese was created, were inscribed on these oracle bones and were answered by the cracks that appeared in the bones after they had passed through fire for everyone knows that the dead do not speak the same language as the living. These writings have survived them, and so another exchange with the dead has been achieved, though even today its impossible to fathom answers to their dark and blood-soaked questions.
Hou Jinyi, his cropped mass of curly black hair plied into a messy side-parting over his horsy face, scrubbed up and shaved and dressed and smiling especially for this, his first visit to a photographer, stared up at Yuying. She traced a finger over that familiar lopsided smile. She too talked to those who could no longer answer, though she did not expect a reply. This is how she wanted to remember him, not as the wrinkled thing wheezing fitfully in the busy ward. She leaned forward to study the small portrait, and slowly let her memories carry her back to where she always travelled when she was alone, to the summer of 1946.
Excerpted from Under Fishbone Clouds by Sam Meekings. Copyright © 2010 by Sam Meekings. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Dunne Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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