Fiction: The Wailing
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I’ve been travelling in China for three months. Mesmerizing at first, the bright lights of Shanghai and Beijing soon lost their allure, so I elected to go off the beaten track and venture through rural Henan province instead. It’s a different world, the contrast stunning. Here, the people are simple, and their lives uncomplicated. They may have cellphones and satellite TV's, but compared to residents of the big cities they remain untouched by the march of progress. Tradition, and the ‘Old Ways,’ mean much more.
I have been staying in a traditional-style courtyard guest house in a tiny village around thirty miles from the provincial capital of Zhengzhou for several weeks now. I can’t speak the local dialect, but I try to talk to people when I can using my limited Mandarin. Sometimes I meet the occasional fellow traveller, other lost souls like me, or I come across a local with a rudimentary grasp of English who wants to ‘practice’ with me.
I have always been fascinated in folk tales and superstition, and this part of the world is ripe. Mostly spread through word of mouth, the stories I hear are often replicated in different villages scattered over a large area, as if some mythological framework exists. One particular tale keeps cropping up. I don’t know what its given name is, or even if it has one. I call it ‘the Wailing.’
You hear it in the dead of night, invariably when you’re alone. The mournful cries of an infant carried on the gentle breeze. The sound is heart-wrenching, appealing to your most primal of instincts. You are filled with unbearable sorrow, yearning, and a profound sense of desolation echoes within you.
Somewhere out there in the darkness is a lost child who desperately needs your help.
But all is not what it seems. As is symptomatic of Chinese culture as a whole, what you see on the surface often hides a deeper, more profound meaning.
The thing isn’t human. The cries are made by some kind of evil spirit, or supernatural entity, stalking the countryside trying to trick the gullible. The out-of-towners, the city slickers. The locals have been discussing it in hushed tones for generations. It terrifies them. They don't often warn outsiders, maybe because they realize this thing needs sustenance. Better have it slaughter strangers than the ones you love. They say it lures you out of your bed and into the darkness, often wearing nothing but your night clothes. It gets cold here in winter. Deathly cold.
Once you are outside, the cries will taunt you, leading you off in different directions and around in circles, until you yourself are hopelessly lost. As the despair settles over you like a black shroud and your life force ebbs away, you lose your grip on sanity. Something in your mind snaps like a twig, and you regress back to your childhood. Back to a safer time where your life was just a blank canvass.
Then, as you sink to the frozen ground using your last breath to scream for mercy, you realize that all along, the incessant wailing you could hear were the tortured sounds of your own demise.
For a curious soul like me, it’s a fascinating story.
But I know it's more than a story.
These haunting cries have been following me for days now. I hear them every night. Sometimes distant and muffled, other times loud and shrill as if the thing making them is right outside my window. I look, but my eyes can't penetrate the darkness. Sleep is a distant memory. So tonight, I’m going to find out once and for all where this wailing is coming from.
I might be a while, it’s so cold outside.
Christian Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, the Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being Back from the Dead: A Collection of Zombie Fiction.