The Chains That Bind
Suyin answered the phone while directing the person before her towards the elevator. Her gold bracelet slid up her wrist, and the cold of it made her frown.
“Suyin? Is this you?” Mrs. Wang’s voice was jagged with tears.
“Suyin, it’s about Ling. There’s been…an accident.” Mrs. Wang, Ling’s mother, broke into tears, then controlled herself and continued. “Wong is…dead. Ling is–.” Static broke her words, a canned announcement on the hospital PA. “Ling is barely holding on.” The words were a whisper. “The doctors don’t know….” She began weeping.
Suyin’s mind raced. Ling’s laughter, a mere three days ago, as she sneaked a call to Suyin while on her honeymoon. She whispered that her new husband, Wong, had finally relented and taken them to the Lock Chain on the summit of Wudan Mountain. Wong had even helped her place their lock, had snapped it shut himself. “We’ll be tied together forever, I just know it! Wong even said so.” Ling’s words, her final laugh, now made Suyin’s blood run cold.
“Mrs. Wang, I’ll be there as soon as I can. But until then, please, please keep me informed.”
Suyin replaced the phone, told Ming she had to leave.
“You know it’ll mean your job?”
Suyin just nodded.
She raced to the hardware store, then across the street to the train station. Her bracelet grew colder, heavier, all the way.
At Wudan, Suyin tossed her office heels in the garbage, peeled off her hose and started up. Her goal lay at the mountain’s summit, thousands of meters high. Once a holy site, the ancient temple was now home only to tourists. And superstitious honeymooners.
Soon, her prim skirt was stained, her office blouse half-sheer with sweat. It ran off her face, and her damp hair clung tight. Suyin clutched her side, pressing away a cramp.
The other hikers shied away from her. Suyin shouldered by them, gritting her teeth. She kept climbing, aware of the growing coldness of the bracelet around her wrist.
The steep ancient steps were unending. The sun climbed as Suyin did, so altitude brought no relief from the heat. But Suyin could not stop. How long had it been? How long did she still have?Her new backpack clattered, banging metal into her spine with every thudding misstep, every stumble.
Each breath roared in her ears. Her lungs burned, her throat rasped raw. Suyin cursed her sedentary life, her aching calves and trembling thighs. Her best friend’s life depended upon her swift ascent, and this was the best she could do? She would never get there in time.
She shook her head and pressed forward, faster. But her shredded feet screamed, and she only limped along. The chain supporting the ancient stone rail began here. But this wasn’t the lucky site. That was near the top.
Ahead, a tour group ranged along the trail, resting and filling the air with laughter. A shriek cut into the giggling as they caught sight of her. Hands rose to their mouths, laughing eyes looked away. Suyin’s cheeks burned, and she looked at her bloody feet as she puffed by them, a short, dishevelled woman amidst the lean tourists in hiking gear.
Suyin turned back and darted to the nearest woman.
“Your shoes! How much for your shoes?”
The woman shied back, so Suyin turned to her neighbor. “I need shoes! I’ll pay!” That girl shrank away, fear in her eyes. Others began to close around, threatening Suyin off.
Suyin kept Ling in her mind as she turned in a circle, pulled all her money out and waved it about, demanding, “Who wants to make money? I need shoes! I have to make the summit, fast.”
A boy stepped forward, eyeing the money. He stripped off his shoes, ragged trainers thatmight see another day. Suyin grabbed them, thrust the wad of bills into his waiting hands. Shoving her feet into the warm, padded soles, she let tears spill over her eyelids, then knotted the laces tight. Without a glance at the whispering knot, she sprinted higher.
The summit came into view. So far to go yet. So steep. She wobbled. Suyin bit until blood trickled from her lip onto her teeth. The pain braced her.
And there! There was the chain. Padlocks ringed the links, newer at the bottom, older the higher one climbed, with the odd new one tossed amidst the old like a shiny new yuan in a pile of old coins.
Ling had told her the lock was red, the color of celebration. And of blood.
Suyin cursed. There were four red, all new and all close to vertical stone. Ling’s laugh, echoing out the receiver: “It’s halfway up, near a pillar. Extra luck!”
People milled further up, near the temple, but no one looked long at Suyin. She looked unlucky, perhaps crazy.
She shrugged off her pack. It dropped with a metallic thud. She withdrew lock cutters and quickly moved to the nearest red lock. She pressed hard, harder than she thought she could, and the lock fell away. Whispering a prayer of forgiveness to the wronged couples, she cut the remaining three. Each fell with a clink that echoed through the quiet like a bell’s final toll.
Her shoulders heaving, Suyin sank to her knees, the lock cutters falling from her hands. The gold bracelet on her wrist gleamed. A gift from Ling, so long ago. A soul-sister binding from the heir of an ancient mystic and sage.
A breeze fluttered against her damp hair and neck. On the chain before Suyin, the locks clinked dolefully as the breeze rattled them, stronger than it should for such a weak wind.
It was the spirits. Suyin felt it. And she felt the snapped link. Her hand moved on its own, clutched one — the last she’d cut. It was cold despite the heat. It was Ling and Wong’s.
Now that the lock binding wife and husband was cut, Ling was free. She’d live, even while Wong’s dead spirit called, demanded.
Suyin lifted the cutters and made another cut, dividing the lock cleanly in two. It could never be rejoined. Climbing to her feet, she threw them far over the ledge, into the forest below.
Her cellphone rang. With thick, slow fingers Suyin retrieved the phone from her pack.
“Suyin!” Relief poured through Ling’s mother’s voice. “Her monitors–. Ling is stable. She’ll live.”
Suyin dropped her head, tears streaking her face. The chains of her bracelet warmed against her wrist. She took a long, shaking breath.
“Yes. I know.”
M.E. Garber writes speculative fiction from her home in Ohio. Her blog is at megarber.wordpress.com.
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