Shui Gui

If Val could’ve been anyone, she would’ve been Anya.

On the first day Val met her, seated next to each other by luck of the alphabet—Langford, then Liu—Anya had shaken her hand. It was a firm grip, one of old money and future expectations. Val had squirmed in her second-hand uniform and hoped that Anya didn’t notice the run in her tights, snagged before she’d even walked through the door of her new high school.

Val’s life was entrenched in the grease and heat of her parents’ Chinese takeaway in Kilbirnie. The first time Anya had insisted on accompanying her home, Val had seen her mother’s disapproval in the way she refused to remove her apron, and the not-so-subtle glance at Anya’s designer trainers.

‘That girl is a bad influence.’ It was a refrain she would hear countless times. ‘If you’re not careful, she’ll bring you down with her.’

But that was the kind of thing her parents always said.

‘Don’t eat the heart of the crab—it will make your body cold,’ or, ‘If you sleep with your hair wet, you’ll wake up with a fever,’ or, ‘Aiyah, this Government is a dead chicken kicking the soup pot lid.’

They were just sayings and old wives’ tales, negativity shrouded in the guise of ancient Chinese truth.

Val knew that her parents would never really get it. They didn’t know what it felt like to be Anya’s friend—her only real friend. They hadn’t listened to her whisper her secrets in the dead of night; hadn’t been the getaway driver when she egged her ex-boyfriend’s house; hadn’t held her when she cried and wiped her tears.

Val’s parents didn’t know how being close to Anya felt. How when it was just the two of them, she forgot how to breathe. It wasn’t just that she wanted to stay close to Anya, she needed to. She wasn’t quiet around her because she was a good listener, it was because she was afraid of what she might say; might admit to.

And that, Val knew, her conservative, old world parents would never understand.


The five of them always gathered at Anya’s; she had picked them up over the years. Sometimes there were more, sometimes less. Val had seen many girls—and guys—cycle in and out, but she was always the constant. For now, it was the five of them.

‘You know what would be fun?’ said Anya, topping up wine glasses around the table. ‘We should go for a long weekend to my parents’ holiday home in Marlborough. We could bring some drinks, some food, get into nature and look at some…’

‘Trees?’ Val offered.

‘Yeah, why not. Trees. There’s this river nearby—it’s gorgeous.’

‘I could catch us some fish,’ Ryan said.

Val watched Anya’s hand move to her chest in a gesture of mock surprise. Her gaze followed her fingers as they trailed up her neck to her chin. ‘You fish? Well, aren’t you quite the Bear Grylls.’

Val didn’t love how Anya and Ryan flirted with each other. He was a new addition to the group, and she was sure that he only hung around on the off chance that Anya would sleep with him.

‘I know how to fish, too.’ Her voice was lost in the chatter around the table. Anya didn’t even look at her.

‘Wouldn’t it be fun? We could go next month—the first weekend. Isn’t it a long weekend?’

‘I don’t think it is—’ Val began to pull out her phone to check the calendar.

‘Who cares? We can make it one.’ Ryan had dismissed her before she’d even had time to open the app. ‘I’m in.’

‘Valerie? It’s only fun if we all go.’ Anya tapped her finger on the table in time with the second hand of the clock on the wall. ‘Well? Time’s ticking.’

Val looked down at her glass, the surface dark, blood red, little ripples cascading outwards as Anya tapped. She could see herself reflected in the liquid, a tiny Val, drowning in red wine. 

If she said yes, she’d have to watch Ryan and Anya flirting all weekend. But if she said no, she’d be responsible for ruining everyone’s fun. At least if she said yes, she could be there. She could make sure that Ryan didn’t get his way; that he couldn’t just replace her.

She looked up. ‘Okay.’


In truth, Val hated the water. Her Uncle Ming had made sure of that.

When she was eight, visiting her family in Beijing, Val had been crouched on the banks of the Liangshui River, searching for fish. Her parents and grandparents were up ahead, chatting, leaving her mother’s younger brother to babysit.

Val’s Mandarin was average, at best, and listening while her grandmother complained that they lived too far away and didn’t visit enough was just dull. There had been the promise of candied taro bites after their mid-afternoon walk, the only reason Val had agreed to trudge along in the muggy heat.

‘Don’t get too close.’

She’d looked up into her young uncle’s face, his baseball cap shading his features. ‘Why not?’

‘Didn’t your mami tell you about the shui gui?’

‘What are shui gui?’ Her pronunciation was off, the syllables sliding around her teeth and getting stuck in her tongue. 

Val couldn’t see for sure, but she was convinced her uncle was smiling, enjoying the telling of his tale. 

‘The spirits of those who’ve drowned. They lure their victims to the river, and then drown them and take over their lives.’

She shuffled away from the water, away from her uncle. ‘Then what?’

‘Then they have to wait for the next person they can drown, otherwise they’re stuck forever.’

Forever forever?’ Val shivered, despite the summer heat.

‘That’s why they say you don’t pee in the river at night.’ he leaned closer, his voice dropped, ‘or the shui gui will get you.’

‘Val, Ming—it’s time to go.’ It was her mother, calling to them. Her father was already heading up the steps from the riverbank with her grandparents.

Val held one hand up over her eyes, squinting into the sun at her family. They were just a dark shadow against the light.


There was a long driveway leading up to the Langfords’ holiday home. Where other baches in the area looked a little more homely, more lived in, the Langfords’ was so modern—all pine and steel and glass—it looked as if it had been plucked out of House & Garden and dropped into place. This was clearly a home for entertaining.

Anya threw the front door open and kicked her shoes off. The others trailed in after her.

‘Jesus, Anya. How rich are you?’

Anya shrugged. ‘We’re comfortable.’

‘Only rich people say stuff like that,’ said Ryan.

The others explored the home, marvelling over every exquisite detail, while Val unpacked sausages, Tip Top bread, avocados, and eggs into the fridge.

‘Did you see the size of this bathtub,’ came a call from one of the bathrooms. ‘You all bathe in here together, or what?’

‘I’d be happy to bathe in there with you, Anya,’ Ryan said, winking.

Val grimaced. She heard Anya’s bright tinkling laugh in response. Slipping outside into the backyard, she inspected the well-manicured lawn and covered hot tub. It was another straight-out-of-a-magazine spread, right down to the wrought iron garden furniture and natural stone lawn feature.

Towards the trees at the back, she could see a well-worn track. She headed towards it, standing on the edge of the woods, half in the burning sun, half in the cool shade, and peered into the trees. The path twisted and turned, leading up a hill and disappearing around the corner. The leaves rustled. A tūī squawked and warbled.

Val closed her eyes. Something flew close to her—maybe a kererū, judging by the sound of its wings and the creak of the branch it settled on. She focused. Somewhere nearby she could hear the very gentle sound of running water. Didn’t Anya say there was a river around here? She could taste the woods on her tongue: earth and moss and something deeper, something more mineral. She concentrated on the sound of the distant water. 


She opened her eyes and turned around. Anya was watching her.

‘What are you doing?’ Her green-grey eyes were on hers, one perfectly threaded eyebrow arched upwards.

‘Where does the path lead?’

‘It’s just a walking track. The river’s over that hill. We can go check it out later.’ Anya took her hand, pulling her into the sunshine, and wrapped her arm around her waist. She hadn’t realised how cold she was until Anya’s arm was around her. ‘Come on. Let’s have some fun. That’s why we’re here, right?’

Val forced a smile. ‘Right. Yeah.’ She let Anya lead her back towards the house, glancing back at the walking track. She shivered a little and felt Anya’s arm pull her in tighter, but she didn’t feel any warmer.


In the end, only Ryan, Anya, and Val went to the river. Ryan had insisted on trying to catch a fish for dinner; Val had insisted on chaperoning. The walk was pleasant, made better by the fact that Ryan was struggling behind the two girls, holding all the equipment, while they strode ahead, arm-in-arm.

‘Wait until you see this river—they wanted to close the trail off but it’s so gorgeous, and Mum and Dad insisted. They got a great deal on this place.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Something about a missing child. It was like 50 years ago, but they never recovered the body.’ Anya stopped. They had reached the top of the track. ‘I mean, look at that: why would you want to close this off?’

The river was stunning. She could see reeds standing proud in the river, waving gently, like friendly cats’ tails. Beyond was a waterfall, cascading into white froth. Picturesque was the word that came to mind—so why, Val wondered, did she feel so uneasy?

Ryan made a big fuss of arranging the fishing gear. The fish could catch themselves he said, sweating a little as he set up the complicated rig.

‘Isn’t it gorgeous?’ Anya stretched her arms upwards, revealing a flash of her stomach, smooth tan skin that Val couldn’t help but stare at.

A cough from Ryan. Val glanced at him. He was watching her. She turned away, feeling the tips of her ears burning.

‘We should go for a swim.’ Ryan was already taking his t-shirt off.

‘I’m not wearing any togs!’ Anya’s laugh was bright.

‘Yeah? Me neither.’ He started to slip his shorts off, grinning, eyes hidden behind his sunglasses.

‘What if it’s dangerous?’ Val said. Ryan was now only wearing his boxers and Anya was peeling down to her underwear.

‘You stay here and watch for fish, then,’ said Ryan, and he rushed forward, scooping Anya up and charging into the river with her. She shrieked, but Val could see the broad smile on her face. Now they were standing in the water, and he was tucking her wet hair behind her ear, whispering something. His arm was around her waist. His face dipped towards hers.

Val turned around. She couldn’t watch this. Couldn’t witness someone else pushing her out—not again.


Maybe it had been a trick of the wind, but she was sure she had heard her name. She started along the river, away from the couple in the water. She couldn’t see or hear them anymore, hidden in the reeds.

There was another rush of wind—it almost sounded like a sigh. She crouched down beside the water. Her heart thudded in her throat and head.

For a horrible moment, Val convinced herself that something in the water was going to get her. She could taste bitterness at the back of her throat. Her uncle’s voice came back to her: shui gui.

She recoiled, then immediately caught herself. She gripped the grass at the edge of the water. It was just a dumb story her stupid kid uncle had told her. There was nothing there.

She took a deep breath and leaned forward, looking into the water. It was only her reflection.

Val let out the breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding. She almost laughed. She was ridiculous, working herself up over nothing, hearing things that didn’t exist.

‘Val?’ Anya was calling for her; looking for her. She cared about her. ‘Val, where are you?’

‘I’m over here,’ she called. She started to stand up. ‘I’m coming!’

As if to prove a point, Val reached forward, splashing her reflection in the water, and her reflection grabbed back. Cold fingers wrapped around her wrist, pulling Val into the river head-first.


Val thrashed in the water, tangled in the reeds, tangled in strong arms. Her chest was bursting, fingers around her throat, hair wrapped around her face. She struggled—twisting, turning, drowning—and then the thing that had grabbed her held her tight, and Val was looking into a face that was her own, but wasn’t her.

It grinned—its gums were black. Dead eyes bore into her as it held her down, wrapping her in the base of the reeds. The thing moved its lips. Though Val couldn’t hear it, she knew exactly what it was saying: ‘Thank you.

It released her, and Val was trapped under the water, tethered to the riverbed. She thrashed against her bonds, her mouth open in a wide O, but there was no breath in her to even so much as make a bubble. Helplessly, she watched as the thing dragged itself out of the water and removed its wet clothing, wringing water out of its hair—her hair.

Val watched as Anya came running, Ryan following behind, dragging his feet. Val strained against the reeds, trying to wrench herself free, watching it talking to her friends, reaching out for her Anya.

The thing said something—what did it say?—and took Anya’s hand. Anya laughed. Even from her underwater prison she could hear that laugh; bright and fresh and sharp, like a thousand needles in her heart.

Val cried out, ‘Anya, it’s not me! Help me!’ but she made no sound.

The thing that wasn’t Val put its hand on Ryan’s shoulder and even Ryan cracked a smile. Val could see its fingers linked with Anya’s, its head close to hers, whispering something in her ear, and then the three of them were walking away.

‘Anya!’ Val called. She wanted to cry, but she had no tears, no blood flowing through her. How could Anya not know? How could she believe that that was her?

The thing looked over its shoulder at Val in the reeds, and it smirked—it fucking smirked—and then it turned back around, and the three of them were gone. Val was alone, trapped in the water.

Val opened her mouth and screamed, but nobody heard her.

Jackie Lee Morrison is a Wellington-based freelance writer and editor. She has been published in Newsroom, Headland, The Spinoff, Turbine | Kapohau, and Capital Mag. When not writing, you’ll find her eating all the noods and petting all the dogs.