Which Way

An image of red spider lilies, superimposed on a black background.

Spruce trees stand like guardians along the horizon, towering over grass fields that extend out of sight. You’ve never seen anything like it–so green and bright against the polished granite tombstones. One late September, I take a sick day so we can stop by, take a stroll, decompress. It is then that we see the spider lilies: vibrant red flowers whose petals and long stamens unfurl like a spider flipped on its back, legs pried open to the sun.

Where’d they come from? You ask.

I shrug.

Maybe they’re here to guide souls to the afterlife, you say.

“No, that’s silly,” I say, although I’m not quite sure why. We often spend hours entertaining what comes after death: another world? Reincarnation? Nothingness? We favor the theory of another world because it lets our imaginations wander. Building a world from the ground up is a lot of work: I define the legal processes, currency systems, societal conventions; you think up what kinds of creatures exist and what abilities we’d have–flying is a must, you say. We call this forever-being-redefined place the Other Shore because you find the ocean almost equally as fascinating. I suppose flowers seem like the least useful beacon for someone trying to find their way. Shouldn’t they have a ferryman like Charon rather than flowers that only bloom in the fall?

No one asked for that attitude. You glare at me and I pretend not to notice, keeping my gaze in the direction of the swaying trees and the distant mountain’s silhouette.

“If the flowers were meant to be guides, don’t you think you’d have figured out a way to the afterlife by now?”

That’s because I don’t want to leave yet. Who else is going to remind you to take out the trash and wash the pillowcases?

I shrug again. I can remember to do those things. I am sure.

One of our theories goes like this: after you die, you lose all of your limbs. Maybe it’s because I keep replaying the moment we jumped off the train. We skipped history class that day because you forgot to finish your essay and would rather disappear than witness your grade docked. We’d originally thought the train abandoned, running and chasing each other on the train’s rooftop like we were Hollywood stunt doubles when the engine suddenly sputtered to life. You jumped off several seconds after me, your legs still pushing off from the railing as I tumbled onto the ground and rolled to the side, knees stained green. You hit the ground with a thud that echoed as your bones collided with tracks. Maybe I imagined the squelch and crunch as the train rolled over you because all I could really hear was the engine and the chugga-chugga choo-choo. Anyway, once you’re dead, what do you need limbs for? Our theory defines the afterlife as a limited space–no room for luggage besides your soul.

I begin walking back to the car. You follow.

In the Other Shore, I bet snowflakes don’t disappear as soon as they touch the ground. I bet trees grow silver and gold apples but they’ll give you the edible type too if you want.

What are you doing when we get back?

I turn the key to start the car engine. “Job applications.”

Step 0 to settling down. Step 1: find yourself a nice girl. Bet you my sister’s still available. You two should do a do-or-die marriage. If you can’t get married before forty, just marry her. Can’t stay cooped up in your cave forever.

I slam on the gas pedal and savor the acceleration down the empty road. Mist and fog hover above the asphalt but my headlights blast through them.

“What would I do with you?”

Nothing? I can be quiet. Like I’m not even there.

I slow the car and U-turn in the middle of the road. We arrive back at the field and I cut through the grass and climb the steep hill to the tombstones. We have another theory: you’re not supposed to step within an arm’s reach of a tombstone. It’s disrespectful and disgusting, like when people slide up too close to you on the morning train. Although it’s not like the dead can hear my footsteps. In one of our renditions of the Other Shore, you enter the afterlife as a cocoon, unable to hear or see or feel. When the cocoon breaks open, you are fashioned a halo and sprout wings. Sometimes the feathers darken over time, like black ink permeates from the central shaft to vane, until finally you have to pluck out the dark patches so you don’t stand out. You like those romantic images. You tell me they are physical manifestations of guilt, repentance, remorse. And acne is a manifestation of ill will, I think. You wouldn’t like it there anyway.

I kneel and pluck the spider lilies from their roots, gather them in my arms, stuff them in a plastic grocery bag, and leave the bag in my trunk. After we watch the sky darken and the green fields dull to black, I drive home and toss the flowers in the trash can.


Lucy Zhang is a writer, software engineer, and anime fan. Her work has appeared in Peach Mag, Litro, Okay Donkey, Jellyfish Review, and elsewhere. She is an editor for Heavy Feather Review and assistant fiction editor for Pithead Chapel. Find her at https://kowaretasekai.wordpress.com/ or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.