Aphelion Issue 250, Volume 24
May 2020
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Shaking Hands

by D. A. Cairns

‘Why are your hands trembling?’

Lek did not even hear the question as he focused all his energy into placing the smoking aromatic joss stick in the sand filled bowl resting on the shelf. His eyes narrowed, his flesh crawled, his hands were shaking with fear as he knelt before the family shrine.

‘Mother of Mercy, what are you afraid of?’

Finally, Lek managed to press the joss stick into the sand. Carefully he pulled away allowing his arms to drop by his sides but he remained kneeling. He studied the black and white picture of his grandfather next to the bowl; dull and faded. Lifeless like the man it portrayed. A man Lek had never met and yet one he knew so much about, and feared more than any living thing. Beside the photograph, stood an empty can of Coke, and next to it an emerald Buddha, just six centimetres high.

Lek’s mother, hauled him to his feet and squeezed his shoulder hard. ‘What’s wrong with you? Tell me why you’re acting like a baby!’

Her voice sounded to Lek as though she would not be pleased by whatever answer he gave, so he stayed silent. Eventually his mother released her pincer like grip of his shoulder and left the room. The light faded as day gave way to night and Lek stood staring at the photo of his grandfather. Soon only the faint glow of a candle illuminated the shrine, leaving the rest of the small room buried in darkness. Turning his gaze slightly upward to look directly at the flame, Lek gasped as it flickered wildly like something or someone was trying to extinguish it. Dancing in a liquid wax filled crater, the orange flame enchanted Lek, and caused him to feel light headed. He swayed in the darkness which held him in a soft yet suffocating embrace, invisible hands pushed and pulled his thin body.

Out. Out went the candlelight taking Lek with it into nothingness. He awoke on the floor with his sister shaking him gently.

‘Lek! Lek! What are you doing on the floor? Are you all right? Mum’s calling you for dinner.’

She left before Lek had time to comprehend the questions let alone formulate answers. He didn’t know why he was on the floor. Looking up, he was blinded by the naked electric bulb hanging from the ceiling and this reminded him of the candle. He rose from the floor slowly in case he was injured, and went to investigate. He found that the candle was no longer burning but the wick still felt hot to the touch. Lek realised he must have fallen asleep for only a few minutes. He looked at the photo of his grandfather and shivered involuntarily.

Never before had Lek travelled down the stairs and into the kitchen with such alacrity. His breathless arrival startled his mother but she recovered quickly enough to chastise him for his tardiness before Lek could say a word.

‘Where have you been? Didn’t you hear me calling?’


‘Have you washed your hands? Well, hurry up then. Grandma’s waiting for you.’


His mother had left before the question had been finished or any of hers answered, but that was not unusual. She never seemed to have enough time, always rushing around, making Lek hurry, making him feel uncomfortable and hassled and resentful. Grandma, on the other hand, had plenty of time. Some, who disapproved of her ranting homespun philosophy, felt she had too much time on her hands, especially since the death of her husband but Lek thought she was wise and patient and he enjoyed listening to her speak about the past and about the other side, even though the latter subject frightened him.

He ambled out of the kitchen and across the polished wood of the living room floor to where his family were sitting around the cane mat that served as their dinner table. He noted his two sisters kneeling side by side, receiving empty plates and returning them loaded with steaming jasmine rice. His father sat cross legged at one end of the mat sipping straight scotch on ice from a short glass. Grandma sat with her legs folded under her to the right while she leaned on her left hand. She alone acknowledged his arrival with a smile after Lek greeted her formally by bowing low and pressing his open hands together with fingers pointing up.

‘You look pale, Little One. Are you ill?’

‘Just lazy,’ said his mother.

Lek was trying to decide whether he should describe what had happened to him upstairs or not, when the lights dimmed momentarily.

‘Ah!’ cried Lek, squeezing his eyes shut.

Feeling a soft patting on his head, he slowly opened his eyes to see Grandma, still smiling at him. ‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘He wouldn’t be so rude as to interrupt our meal.’

Lek quickly looked around to see if anyone else had heard her but they were engrossed now in their food, conversation reduced to a small supporting role. He turned back to Grandma and would have asked her who she was talking about except for the fact that she too seemed more interested in the ball of sticky rice and papaya salad headed for her mouth than in further discussion, and the truth was Lek already knew exactly to whom she referred.

‘Why aren’t you eating, boy?’ said his father. It was a command not a question.

Lek looked at this hard man who hardly spoke to him, and wondered why he had chosen to be like his dead father; a severe and distant caregiver to his children. What about love? Maybe he didn’t have a choice. Maybe he did not understand love.

‘Eat your food, Lek,’ insisted his mother. ‘Mother of Mercy, can’t you spend even five minutes in the same world as the rest of us?’

That being yet another question not requiring an answer, Lek received a plate of rice from his sister, and joined the meal in silence. All the while he wondered about grandma, and the matter-of-fact way she seemed to say that grandfather was still around. He shivered again and dropped his spoon. Crash, onto the plate. ‘Sorry,’ he said softly.

Lek loaded the spoon with rice and lifted it to his mouth but as he did he became aware of a foul smell invading his nostrils. When he lowered the spoon to look at it, the rice it was rancid and riddled with yellow maggots.

‘Ahhh!’ cried Lek as he flung the spoon down onto the plate. Grains of rice bounced and spun across the spread and the spoon landed on his mother’s plate. He could faintly hear her familiar cry of Mother of Mercy as he sprang to his feet and dashed out into the yard. Lek stood there on the warm grass as though rooted to the spot, his chest heaved and his eyes darted from one threatening shadow to another.

Some time later when he had calmed down, his grandmother approached him.

‘I guess I was wrong,’ she said apologetically.


‘I guess I was wrong about him disturbing our dinner.’

Sensing safety in a sympathetic ear, Lek found his reason and eventually his voice.

‘What’s wrong with me Ya?’

The old woman led him off the grass and back under the awning where she gestured at a broad teak bench. ‘Sit down, Little One.’

Lek watched the darkness as it lurched menacingly towards them and he saw the creatures of the night, floating in the blackness, their green eyes unblinking and unfocused.

‘Can you see them too, Ya?’

She turned slowly in response to the question as though she was thinking about her answer. ‘Yes,’ she said softly, ‘I can see them.’

‘Are they dangerous?’

‘Do they look dangerous?’

‘I feel terrified.’

‘That’s not what I asked you.’

Lek finally tore his eyes away from the creatures which seemed closer now, and looked at his grandmother. Her eyes were clear and warm, and Lek began to experience a transformation from abject fear to peace, as if he were somehow receiving it from her like a live giving injection.

The wise woman observed the change in Lek’s demeanour and patiently waited for him to be ready to talk some more.

‘They look dangerous but…’ said Lek as he stood and gazed again into the supernatural gathering.

A scream from inside was followed quickly by the sound of glass shattering and Lek moved to the back door to investigate.

‘Wait! Little One. He’s going to play with everyone else now.’

All the lights went out in the house as Lek stepped in through the door and the temperature dropped as though he had suddenly walked into a refrigerator. He could hear voices, unfamiliar voices whispering and snickering.

‘Mum! Dad!’

More faint sinister laughter wafted through the cold dark air, swirling around Lek and each word he spoke was answered by an echo; a mocking voice, teasing and cruel.

A candle flared to life from a corner of the room and he turned quickly to see a shadow glide from the corner to the safety of nearby gloom. Suddenly Lek was reminded of his grandmother’s question, and it fueled him with courage, a feeling stronger than he had ever known.

‘I’m not afraid of you Bu,’ he said. When only silence replied he said it again but louder this time. ‘I’m not afraid anymore.’

A little girl’s voice said, ‘You should be Little One. You should be.’

‘Who are you?’

‘Who are you?’ demanded another voice, this one of an old woman.

Then a multitude of voices began speaking at once all around him so he could not tell where they were coming from. Stretching out his arms in the darkness he swung around in circles but felt nothing and eventually tumbled to the floor, dizzy and tired. ‘I’m not afraid,’ he mumbled. ‘I’m not afraid. Not afraid.’

When he opened his eyes he was lying in his own bed under a light blanket. The whole family was gathered there in his room, studying him with anxious expressions.

‘We’ve called the doctor for you Little One,’ said his mother.

Lek smiled at her. It had been a long time since she had called him that, and it made him feel as though he had just awoken from a nightmare.

‘What happened?’ he asked.

‘When you ran outside you banged into the door jam and knocked yourself out. There was a lot of blood but we stopped it now, and thank the Lord Buddha you woke up. We were so worried. Why did you run off like that?’

Lek’s grandmother answered for him. ‘The boy needs rest now. I’ll sit with him until the doctor arrives.’

After they left, grandmother moved closer to his side and gently dabbed his forehead with a wet cloth. ‘It’s not over yet, Little One,’ she said cryptically.


Noting the confusion in her grandson’s eyes, she sighed and smiled at him.

‘They saw you run into the door jam but that’s not what happened.’

‘It’s not?’

‘First you saw something in your rice and then you saw the creatures of the night in the backyard. We were talking and then there was a scream from inside the house. You went inside to check it out and the lights went out.’

Realisation dawned in Lek’s mind and showed on his face. ‘The house was full of people.’ He looked at his grandmother for confirmation and she half nodded so Lek continued. ‘Dead people?’

She nodded more definitely this time.

‘Creatures of the night?’

‘No,’ she said, ‘they don’t like the indoors. They don’t like being boxed in. It reminds them of death.’

‘What are they?’

‘Animals, demons, a mixture of both, some ghosts even choose to be with them. I don’t know why. Maybe it has to do with the circumstances of their deaths.’

There was a knock at the door, followed by the entry of the doctor who formally greeted Lek’s grandmother then smiled at him. Lek froze when he saw the doctor’s face, and if he could have looked away or asked her, he would have seen the same reaction from his grandmother.

‘You both look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ joked the doctor as he moved closer to Lek. In his mind, images of the family shrine were flashing before his eyes. The empty Coke can, the sand bowl, the incense, the Emerald Buddha, the photograph. Then the mental slide show jammed. The doctor so much resembled his dead grandfather that Lek decided it was in fact the same man; death wearing living flesh. It had to be.

The doctor, totally unaware of all that was rampaging through Lek’s mind, sat on the edge of the bed and asked him a series of questions which Lek answered honestly yet mechanically. Next, he examined the cut and the golf ball sized bump underneath it.

‘Ran into a door jam eh?’ he said.

Lek saw a sparkling green iridescence in the doctor’s eyes.

‘What on earth were you running from?’

Lek thought to himself, nothing on earth, and then the lights went out and he was plunged once more into solitary darkness.

‘Ya?’ cried Lek frantically. ‘Ya? Are you still here? Ya?’

The lights came back on and all was quiet. Lek’s grandmother sat beside him mopping the sweat off his forehead. She was singing.

‘What happened? Where’s the doctor?’

The old woman stopped singing and looked at Lek, smiling sweetly. ‘The doctor hasn’t arrived yet. Did you see someone else?’

‘I thought I did but…what’s going on? I don’t know what’s real and what’s not any more. I can’t stand it, Ya. Help me.’

A knock on the door. A bang on the door. A continuous thumping on the door.

‘Come in!’ yelled Lek. ‘Come in.’

With a crash the door was unhinged and smashed on the floor, wood splinters flew, and a cloud of dust plumed to fill the room. Through the cloud appeared a frighteningly familiar face, attached to a thin skeletal body clothed in grimy rags and carrying a black briefcase.

‘Doctor’s here, Little One,’ breathed the wraith. ‘Here to heal…or maybe peel.’ The hacking laugh that followed exploded from its mouth in a rush of putrid gas. Lek was paralysed as his dead grandfather, the ghost doctor, slowly approached his bed.

‘Stop laughing, you old fool.’

‘Is that you Ya?’

‘Hush, Little One. I’m talking to your grandfather.’

The hideous apparition froze, turned its head and extended a bony finger in her direction.

‘You always spoil my fun. Even in death, I can’t have my fun.’

Lek thought he sounded like a child being roused on by his parent-in this case, his wife.

She said, ‘You’re scaring him. It’s not funny.’

Slowly, before Lek’s disbelieving eyes, the ghastly ghost transformed into his grandfather. With his shoulders slumped and his head bowed, he looked suitably chastened as he stood in silence and waited respectfully for his wife to speak.

Her words were stern. ‘Why Dear?’

For a moment, it seemed to Lek that his grandfather was afraid to answer for fear that whatever he said would be unlikely to mollify his angry wife. Patiently, she waited, glaring at him.

‘I’m bored.’

‘Bored? Is that it?’ she demanded. ‘You’re telling me you’ve been scaring your grandson half to death because you’re bored?’

‘The others…’

‘Others? What others? Even in the grave you’re a sheep. You’ve never been able to stand up for yourself. Never had the courage to lead. Never…’ and on and on she went.

Lek watched the old ghost wilt and wither under the verbal attack and he began to feel sorry for him. Maybe it was incredibly dull being dead. All the magical powers and trickery he had used to bedevil Lek counted for nothing now as he cringed and cowered under the assault of his former earthly master. He glanced at Lek. There were tears in his eyes and his hands were shaking.

Disappearing from the room suddenly, the apologetic apparition left his words floating in the room.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I am, really I am. It was just supposed to be a little bit of fun.’

Looking down at his hands, Lek remembered how they trembled every time he had to pray at the shrine in front of the picture of his grandfather. How he feared him and his ethereal presence. How he feared stinging criticism or stinging rebuke. How he felt fragile, vulnerable and worthless. He turned his hands over a few times, palms up, palms down, and noted with great satisfaction how steady they were, and how strong he felt. Knowing he must thank his grandmother for saving him, he then turned to where he thought she was sitting beside his bed. The wise old lady had also disappeared, or perhaps, wondered Lek, perhaps she had never been there at all.


2019 D. A. Cairns

Bio: Heavy metal lover and cricket tragic, D.A. Cairns lives in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, where he works as an English language teacher and writes stories in his spare time. He has had over 50 short stories published. He blogs at Square pegs http://dacairns.blogspot.com.au and has authored five novels, Devolution, Loathe Your Neighbor, Ashmore Grief, A Muddy Red River and Love Sick Love, as well as a short story collection titled The Devil Wears a Dressing Gown. https://www.amazon.com.au/Devil-Wears-Dressing-Gown-ebook/dp/B07DDMJW5K

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