Editor’s note: This story contains a brief mention of suicide. Nothing graphic, but please read accordingly.
by September Sui
Once a month, the contract had stipulated. Once a month, when the moon had waned itself dark, she would kneel and pray in the annex of the ancestral hall set aside for her ghost husband. She had thought it acceptable: tend the altar, bring fresh fruit, burn joss money, all in exchange for living as a daughter-in-law.
Once a month was not enough.
The altar was not large, a waist-high rosewood table, with the prayer tablet surrounded by her offerings: tea and fruit, wine and mooncakes, candles and flowers. In the dim illumination of the altar candles she kept burning all day, she found the box of joss sticks and pulled out eight. The wind whistled in—he whistled in admiration. Eight? Very brave.
She’d burn a hundred if she thought it would bring him back to life. Instead, she had to take her chances with the magic incense that took all month to procure materials for and make: magpie feather shafts in the core, their blood ground into the sandalwood bark that she peeled herself personally. Her mother-in-law indulged her when she said it was for him.
She held the sticks in a bundle and tilted them over the candle flame, as high as possible to burn just the tips, so that they would last longer, and keep him with her.
“Tell the candle to burn hotter,” she murmured, though she was just as impatient. She used to burn them one by one, prolonging the time they had together, which had been fine in the early days of their marriage when they were still getting to know each other, talking from twilight to twilight. But the more joss on the altar, the more corporeal he became, the more they understood the secret delight of marriage.
She could already feel hands traversing her belly, lips on her neck just above her collar, faint like a breeze. She dipped the incense a little, making sure they caught fire evenly, and shook them gently to release their magic. Fully corporeal, he moaned as he pressed himself against her back, fingers digging between her legs, guided by the pleats of her skirt.
Why are you always so overdressed when you come to me? he complained.
She laughed. “Your mother.” The matriarch thought her son would appreciate a well-dressed wife at his altar; she’d never guessed how quickly he’d undo and scatter those clothes across the floor, like now—the ties of her ruqun undone, he attacked the ribbons of her zhongyi next. “Are you going to let me go? So I can take these off properly?”
She felt him shake his head against her shoulder as he pulled apart the front of her zhongyi’s blouse, and he paused as he noticed the embroidery stitched across the hem of the neiyi, just above her chest: a line of poetry composed with characters from both their names, his present to her at their last meeting. Then a second line underneath, turning the soft romance into a dirty ditty.
His cock stiffened as he recited them in breathless cricket murmurings.
She grinned. “You like it?”
I love it, he declared, reaching down to lift her skirts, all three layers, and dig his fingers into the wet cleft between her legs.
She gasped, falling forward and catching the edge of the altar. Out the corner of her eye she saw the main ancestral hall, a wall of names and portraits. The annex was separated by only half a wall; the upper half was decorative wooden bars spaced far apart. It didn’t matter when they made love on the floor. “The hall… what if someone sees?”
He huffed in amusement. Like who? The ancestors? They already know I’m fucking my beautiful wife.
“Like your mother—Oh—” She moaned as he pushed in, lifting herself on the balls of her feet just a little to help him slide in straighter.
Yes, he hissed with the rustle of the leaves outside. He pulled out and drove in again, harder, just to hear her groan. Her hands still gripped the altar, quivering with the effort of holding herself up as he leaned forward against her.
She panted in rhythm with him, slow and fast, the heat on her back and between her legs a stark contrast to the cool autumn breeze on her face and his icy hands holding up her skirts. And he adjusted one hand, sliding a cold finger down the front of her slit against the throbbing muscle there, and she almost cried out. They had discovered this early in their explorations, realising the advantages of the magic incense.
She checked the incense, and sucked in her breath as she noticed the lengths left. One hand scrambled under the altar and grabbed a fistful of joss sticks.
Should I sto—
“NO.” Her voice reverberated across the whole hall, making them both pause, breathless as the echoes bounced away gently into the silence of the night. “I mean, please don’t stop.”
His laughter was hidden in the chorus of frogs that decided that moment to sing in the pond just beyond the ancestral hall, but he slowed his gait, gentle as she focused on lighting the fresh incense. The magic intensified, and his hands were suddenly less cold, and his cock suddenly more solid, and he noticed it, because he rammed into her hard.
Her knees buckled with the orgasm ripping through her, and she would have knocked her head on the altar if he hadn’t caught her and sunk down with her to the floor. Sighing, she bent over, pressing her cheek against the floor tiles as he rained nipping kisses on the back of her neck, pulling her thighs to position her knees—at an angle just so, and every stroke hit her along that special spot inside that re-ignited her pleasure, and by the time he finished, she was mewling in a high voice only he ever heard.
She stayed prostrate on the floor, panting, vaguely aware that he stood up, picked something off the altar, and sat back down on the floor. He pulled her over and draped her across his lap.
She was dozing off when she remembered the plan for the evening. “I made mooncakes to eat with you!” She stumbled towards the altar, taking the tray with the cakes and wine cups.
He smiled serenely as she cut the cakes into equal portions and poured the wine. Corporeal now, he could eat and drink, though it was meaningless. He nibbled at the cake, and nodded approvingly though he couldn’t taste it.
They toasted—it was a month of celebrations, after all, which they could not celebrate together. The double-seven, the ghost festival, the anniversary of their wedding… he took her free hand as she drank her wine freely.
She put down her cup, and then laid her head on his lap. She was always melancholy at the end of the night.
He drank his wine, and noticed it had the wrong consistency—he could not taste it, but could sense that something was amiss. This is not wine.
“No,” she whispered.
He said nothing in reply, and stroked her hair as the incense and her heartbeat faded.
She was shining as she threw herself into his arms, now fully with him. They took flight into the autumn wind, kissed in the starlight, made love across the midnight sky.
Neither waxing nor waning moons would ever part them again.
September Sui loves flowing water and flouting rules. She spent some years taking off her clothes for cameras in Canadian waters and across Singaporean streets, some work of which can be found at https://september-sui.tumblr.com/ , before moving to a desert and taking off clothes in words.