The first time I saw a ghost I was at my grandmother's house. I was walking up the stairs toward the attic, a dark and musty place, out of boredom and childhood curiosity. People had warned me about not going up the back stairs because it was dangerous. The stairs were steep and there was only one yellow lightbulb to light the way. It flickered incessantly, but I did not mind. I wasn't brave, but I was determined.
It was a summer afternoon in a small village a few hours north of my hometown in Malaysia. The tropical breeze was warm, sticky. The coconut trees swayed as if they would tumble at any time. The birds chirped, the leaves rustled, and my grandmother was napping. I was alone, ready to explore the old house.
When I reached the top, all I could see was the cone of light from the attic window, an square opening about three feet wide. It was left open, the shutters rattling against the wall when a light wind blew. The attic was roomy, dusty, and old. The floorboards creaked as I walked. My heart was beating--I was excited. An adventure, finally, I thought. And that was when I saw her--the lady in white.
There I stood, motionless, unable to talk or think of anything else. I knew she wasn't someone I knew or recognized. I also knew she did not belong in my grandmother's house. But somehow, I knew she knew who I was. Her eyes were quiet, concentrating on me. Her lips curved up, and I thought I saw a smile. I wasn't scared--I was more surprised than scared. And then I heard her speak, a whisper, a breath, "Welcome home, my child. You are the master of this house, the long-awaited heir to a line of dragon's blood." I took a step back, almost tripping down the stairs. But I held on to the bannister in time and balanced myself. I stared at this lady and wondered who she was.
"You will know who I am once you find out who you are." With that she slowly turned into darkness, shadows that sank deep into the crevices of the wooden walls. I blinked and she was no more.
As the years passed, I slowly forgot about that day in my grandmother's attic. Life took over, and I was soon buried in the hustle and bustle of work and school. It wasn't until my grandmother's passing that I finally learned about myself and the lady in white.
At the funeral, everyone was submerged in deep thoughts. My father came down from the attic with a box. Inside were letters, keepsakes, and pictures my grandmother had kept since she was a girl. As we sat--the entire Loke clan--going through every piece of history in that box, we came across a black-and-white photograph of my grandmother when she was still a little girl, no more than three years old. She was being carried by an older man whom we understood was her father. My great grandmother and a few other ladies were also in the picture, some sitting, some standing, all looking at us in complete seriousness. They wore traditional Chinese costumes, showing their high status in stiff collars and pressed silk.
And that was when I saw her--the lady in white--standing behind my great grandmother, smiling, a young woman then with playful eyes and a handkerchief in one hand. I recognized her and I shook.
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Your grandmother's governess," my aunt answered. "She'd come from China with your grandmother when your grandmother was still a baby."
"What happened to her?" I grimaced.
"Why do you ask?" my father said, picking up another photograph of my grandmother when she was a teenager, the lady in white standing next to her, holding hands.
"Just curious," I lied.
"She died of pneumonia after jumping into the water to save your grandmother in a drowning accident. She was your grandmother's best friend, and she'd sacrificed her life so that your grandmother could live. And because of her,"--my father removed his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose--"because of her, we are all here."
"Look," cousin Clara pointed to another photograph, teared and frayed at the corners. "Those people look funny." The photograph showed a man and a woman sitting side by side on what looked like thrones. They wore Chinese imperial headdresses, their expression austere, their hands on their laps.
"Let me see," my father inspected the photograph a little closer. "Ah, they are your ancestors, the Princess ZhiJun and the Duke of Nanjing. This was taken in the mid-nineteenth century in the Forbidden City."
My eyes opened wide. "You mean we were royalty?"
"We still are, my son," my father smiled. "You have the dragon's blood in you, my first born and heir to the Loke dynasty."
As I looked around my grandmother's house, I saw my relatives mingling, laughing, crying, revisiting childhood days in pure delight. My grandmother's house wasn't grand; it was a wooden building built in the early nineteen hundreds, wearing down in a few areas. But as simple as it was, the house was--at that moment-- also the place where dragons convene, the few remaining descendants of the Ching Dynasty of China, the last dynasty to rule the Middle Kingdom. And I smiled at the thought.