Gran Marion would have made a perfect healing mage because she cried all the time. Everyone knew healing magic only worked with the power of tears. She’d told the story of the boy who fell in the well dozens of times, and every time she got to the part where the farmer saved him, she’d choke on her words and get teary-eyed.
And yet, when Grand-Da died, she didn’t cry at all.
She came into Ming’s room to tell her she’d found him on the porch. He’d been smoking. Gran said he probably froze to death. She tossed his pipe onto Ming’s bed and left the room without a trace of emotion other than contempt.
Grand-Da’s pipe was a long bamboo shaft with a metal mouthpiece on one end and a metal bowl on the other. Ming picked it up. It left a small ash stain on her woven blanket. The bamboo was worn smooth from Grand-Da’s callused fingers. Gran Marion hadn’t bothered to clean out the ash from his last smoke.
Ming blinked back a sudden sting of tears and hopped off her bed. She went out to the porch where Grand-Da still sat in his rickety chair, overlooking the snow-dusted street. His ash jar lay at his feet, next to the flat-ended spoon he used to fill the pipe bowl. His skin was lined with a film of frost, his fingers and lips coloured blue.
Seeing him there, Ming blinked more tears from her eyes. She set the pipe down by the jar and rushed back inside; tore the blanket off her bed and scurried back to wrap it around him. Then, Ming emptied Grand-Da’s pipe.
She paused as she scraped the last of the ash out with the spoon. If Gran wasn’t going to honour him, Ming would. She would light the pipe one last time in his memory. She’d watched him smoke enough times to know how.
Once the pipe was lit with the help of the fire-inch sticks from the pouch on Grand-Da’s belt, Ming fiddled with the mouthpiece. She tried to find a way to fit it comfortably between her teeth. The metal was cold on her tongue. When she took her first pull on the pipe, the smell and the thickness of the smoke filled her throat. She started to cough. Her lungs burned and her eyes watered. She coughed until her throat was raw and she was gagging. Why did Grand-Da like this stuff?
It took her one or two more tries to get the technique right and then she sat on the steps of the porch, pipe stuck between her teeth. She leaned one arm on her knee and looked out at the road. The death-cart wouldn’t come by until morning. She didn’t feel right leaving him alone to wait. One or two lanterns burned on porches along the street, but other than that, she and Grand-Da were the only ones out this late.
Ming took a long pull on the pipe and made an attempt at a smoke ring like Grand-Da had shown her. She puckered her lips and puffed a few times. Her attempt was wobbly at best, but her smoke ring floated into the snow-dotted sky. It grew and stretched until it started to vanish. A shadow formed at its centre.
Ming’s own face burst into view in front of her.
She yelped, dropping the pipe, and scrambled back onto the porch towards Grand-Da. The other Ming didn’t come after her. She stared down from the sky with wide eyes, looking more amused than surprised.
“You’re new,” the other Ming said. She drifted down like a human-shaped snowflake and settled on ghostly tip-toes in the snow.
Ming’s heart beat wildly in her chest. Was this the secret to Grand-Da’s temperament? He was delusional, seeing visions from the smoke all this time? Gran Marion had always said he didn’t dwell in the real world. Ming hadn’t wanted to believe it.
“Who are you?” she coughed through a lungful of smoke. What kind of leaf was this?
“Who do I look like?”
Ming gaped at Other Ming. Her voice was high and airy. It was the only thing about her that Ming didn’t recognize. Everything else was identical, from the too-short black hair and wide-set, narrow eyes down to the bone-thin, hairy ankles peeking out between the hem of her black trousers and the straps of her wooden sandals.
Other Ming shrugged. The outline of her body wavered, wispy like a cloud. “I’m Master of the Pipe. Did you steal it?”
“I didn’t! He just — Grand … he’s gone.” The words slipped from Ming’s lips like stones. She couldn’t bring herself to say the word “dead.” She started to cry.
Ming spluttered and blinked. Tears dripped down her face. Couldn’t she grieve in peace? “No! I just lit it — lit it in his memory.”
Other Ming stared at her with depthless eyes for a long time. Then she smiled. “Isn’t that interesting,” she said.
“Why?” Ming snapped through her tears and sniffles. “Can’t I mourn for him my own way?” She flapped a hand at the illusion as though she could wave it away like smoke.
Other Ming cackled and jumped back, seeming to float with the grace of wind. “Sure you can. Just, people normally steal it. I haven’t dealt with inheritance before. Hold on.”
She held up a finger and produced a book the size of a cinder block out of thin air. She flipped through it. The pages sounded like crunching leaves, which made Ming think that it was a real, physical thing. A thing she could touch.
Ming picked herself up off the porch with a frown. She stepped down into the snow, careful not to make a sound, like she was out trapping in the woods with Grand-Da.
Other Ming seemed enraptured by her book. Her lips moved like she was muttering a spell to herself. She didn’t seem to notice Ming … until Ming leapt forward, swinging her arms like she could catch the wisp between her hands and—
Her hands passed right through the ghost. Book and all. Other Ming looked up. Her eyes were wide and her mouth split with a grin.
Ming jabbed a finger in her face. “You’re a ghost! I knew it!”
Other Ming continued to grin. “What does that make you?” she said.
The feeling of triumph dissolved in Ming’s chest like fog fading in late morning. She crossed her arms and took a step back.
“I’m a person,” she said, frowning.
The ethereal version of her broadened her grin to a wolf-like smile. “How come you’re all smokey, then?”
“I’ve just — the pipe—” Ming spluttered to a stop as she looked down at herself. She’d left the pipe on the porch and yet every inch of her, from the black collar of her blue housecoat down to the wooden soles of her sandals, wavered in and out of focus like smog.
Ming ran her hands down the front of her coat. The cotton under her fingers was still touchable. Still real. She looked back at Other Ming. The edges of her clothes and body had solidified. The ghostly flutter of her outline was gone.
She arched an eyebrow at Ming. Ming spun around and jumped onto the porch, reaching for the pipe with trembling hands. Her fingers passed right through the bamboo, and through the floor of the porch, touching nothing at all. The only rule her body seemed to follow was that her feet didn’t sink into the floor.
“Oh!” She gasped, surprised and terrified, as she looked down and found herself floating. Her legs were curled under her like she was kneeling, but her body hung a whole foot off the ground.
Other Ming cackled. Ming tried to spin towards her. She flailed left, then right, and then her body started to spin a little bit upside down. Other Ming’s laughter filled the empty street. Ming finally righted herself and looked up and down the snow-covered road. No heads poked out of windows. No lanterns lit up to investigate the noise. She thought surely Gran would come out and scold her for the racket, but all was quiet and dark behind the closed door and curtained windows of the house.
Ming whirled towards Other Ming just in time to watch the girl hop onto the porch and pick up Grand-Da’s pipe. Her spellbook had vanished. She held the pipe with both hands, reverently, as if it was some kind of relic.
She lifted her gaze to Ming. “Apparently, it works the same with inheritance as if you’d stolen it. Let’s get to business. What’s your wish?”
Ming reached for the pipe. Her hands ghosted right through and the girls came face to face; button nose to button nose. Other Ming didn’t even flinch.
Ming clenched her teeth. “What are you talking about?”
Other Ming rolled her eyes and stood. Ming had to float a little higher to be level with her. “You took ownership of the pipe, so you get one wish. That’s how it works. Didn’t the old man teach you anything?”
Ming tried to grab Other Ming’s face, or claw her eyes out. No luck. She threw her foot at the nearest support post of the porch, but her foot went through that, too. Couldn’t she even vent her frustration?
When she whirled back towards Other Ming, seething, hands clenched at her sides, the girl was standing over Grand-Da. There was no smile on her face now. Her lips were pressed into a thin line as she examined him.
“He probably kept it a secret. Didn’t want you mixed up in it.” She shook her head and almost managed to look sad. “They always think they have more time than they do.”
Ming didn’t think a crazy apparition was capable of sadness or any other human emotion. She must be faking.
“You don’t make any sense. I just wanna wake up!” She looked up into the snow drifting down from the sky. The flakes fell through her like she wasn’t even there. She slapped at her own cheeks with both hands. “I wanna wake up from this dream!”
Other Ming watched her, smiling again. Smiling sadly. “This is no dream. You made a contract the moment you used this pipe.” She balanced the bamboo rod on the palm of her hand. “When you touched the mouthpiece, you gave it your name. I’m the new Ming now. You traded your life for a wish.”
Even as Ming’s face contorted in disbelief and horror, her mind put the pieces together: how Grand-Da had never talked about his past; how no one knew where he came from, not even Gran; and the times when Ming got too close to his pipe — too curious — and he’d snatch it away and tell her never to touch it. If Other Ming was telling the truth, it would explain everything.
“Once your wish is fulfilled, I can go wherever I want. So, what’ll it be?”
Ming sniffled. Other Ming waited patiently. The pipe teetered on her palm.
“I thought only lamps granted wishes,” Ming muttered.
Other Ming snickered. She tossed the pipe into the air and caught it in her other hand, creating an arch of smoke around her head. “Lamps don’t offer wishes, silly. Genies do. But even that’s something else. You don’t get three free wishes from me. This is a fair trade.”
“Fair?” Ming snapped. “What’s fair about this? What’s Gran gonna do? She’s alone. She won’t know where I’ve gone!”
Other Ming interrupted her much too calmly. “Gran won’t even notice. As far as she’s concerned, you never existed in the first place.”
The words scraped at Ming’s insides. Her rage melted to sadness; melted to nothing. Emptiness. A void. She was nothing to anybody anymore? Not to Grand-Da, not to Gran … not even to the baker at the market, or the twins down the street?
Ming shook her head. She turned and shot through the front door. The fact that she could pass through solid wood was enough of a hint, and Gran didn’t answer when she called through the house. She didn’t look up even when Ming swooped up the stairs and through the closed door of her room to find Gran lying on her side in bed.
Ming drifted to her knees on the bed behind her. She patted Gran’s shoulder. Her hand passed right through. She called for Gran in a small voice, but Gran didn’t stir. Not even to snap at her to keep quiet. Ming really was … gone. Gran was all alone.
Ming swooped over her still body to the other side of the bed. It would be wrong to just pass through her like a ghost. Gran Marion’s eyes were closed, but her cheeks were wet with tears. The dim moonlight from the window made her skin glisten. The wrinkles of her face were more defined than ever. Ming didn’t know why she had waited to be alone, but here she lay, crying an ocean of grief.
Something in Ming’s chest shattered. Broke. She couldn’t leave Gran like this. Ming’s wish slipped out before her mind had even fully formed it. “Bring him back,” she said.
Gran’s eyes popped open. For a heart-wrenching moment, Ming thought that she was seen; that it was all a lie. Gran would demand to know what she was doing, hovering over her like a thief in the night. But Gran just sniffled. Her breath shuddered in her chest. She closed her eyes again and sobbed.
Tears poured down Ming’s face and she flew out of the room, careening through doors, walls, and support beams until she was out on the street. Other Ming still stood on the porch. She was watching the pipe tip back and forth in her palm.
“Bring him back!” Ming yelled.
Other Ming looked up. “That’s your wish?”
Ming grit her teeth and punched the air with her words. “Bring. Grand-Da. Back.”
“Okay.” Other Ming spun on her toes and faced Grand-Da’s corpse.
Ming blinked. She hadn’t expected Other Ming to agree just like that. She half expected it to be impossible. Genies couldn’t raise the dead or make people fall in love — those were the rules.
But like Other Ming had said: she wasn’t a genie. This was different.
Other Ming leaned over Grand-Da, took a long pull from the still-burning pipe, and blew a cloud of smoke into his face. Ming watched, hands clenched, heart pounding. She was a ghost, but she was still a living, breathing thing. How was that possible?
She held her breath. As though she’d traded that breath for the chance to see Grand-Da again, his familiar cough hacked out of the smoke cloud. His old bones groaned and he sat up straight in his chair.
“Marion!” he called. He coughed again and Other Ming stepped off the porch. She held the pipe behind her back. Grand-Da didn’t seem to notice her.
“Marion! Water!” Grand-Da wheezed.
Ming hung in the air by Other Ming’s shoulder. Grand-Da struggled to his feet. In the time it took him to stand, Gran Marion had thundered down the stairs and slammed through the front door. She was pale and drawn like she had turned into a ghost herself.
At the sight of Grand-Da on his feet, Gran gave a little shriek. She threw herself into his arms. Grand-Da fell back into the chair and the wood creaked under them. He cradled Gran in his arms in a gentle way that Ming had never seen before.
“What’s with you?” he muttered, coughing again.
“Shut up, old fool,” Gran Marion said.
He grunted and wrapped them both in Ming’s blanket, then tipped his head back to watch the sky. Neither of them called for Ming. Neither of them seemed to consider she was there. Like she didn’t exist.
Like she’d never existed.
Ming sucked in an icy breath. She was the one who was alone now. All she could think was, at least Gran and Grand-Da had each other. She could have tried to scream to make Gran and Grand-Da notice her, but whatever had broken inside of her at the sight of Gran’s grief kept her quiet now.
Other Ming leaned forwards and looked at her. “Are you ready to go?”
Ming looked at the girl. She looked at the old couple, holding each other on the porch. Then, she floated up into the sky and looked down the street.
Other Ming started to walk, leaving small footprints in the snow with the soles of her wooden sandals.
“What if I want to stay here?” Ming called.
Other Ming looked up. She was smiling again. “You’re the breath of the Pipe Mage now. You’ll go where the wind takes you — and I’m the wind. Come on.”
She clasped the pipe behind her back and started to hum to herself, skipping a little as she walked. On the porch, Grand-Da held Gran Marion in his arms and started to whistle the same tune — almost as if he could hear Other Ming’s voice singing in the still, quiet night.