To the women of my family.
The house stood back from the road in an orchard. In the orchard, monitor lizards the length of a man’s arm stalked the branches of rambutan trees like tigers on the hunt. Behind the house was an abandoned rubber tree plantation, so proliferant with monkeys and leeches and spirits that it might as well have been a forest.
Inside the house lived the dead.
The first time she saw the boy across the classroom, Ah Lee knew she was in love because she tasted durian on her tongue. That was what happened–no poetry about it. She looked at a human boy one day and the creamy rank richness of durian filled her mouth. For a moment the ghost of its stench staggered on the edge of her teeth, and then it vanished.
She had not tasted fruit since before the baby came. Since before she was dead.
After school she went home and asked the aunts about it.
“Ah Ma,” she said, “can you taste anything besides people?”
It was evening–Ah Lee had had to stay late at school for marching drills–and the aunts were already cooking dinner. The scent of fried liver came from the wok wielded by Aunty Girl. It smelt exquisite, but where before the smell of fried garlic would have filled her mouth with saliva, now it was the liver that made Ah Lee’s post-death nose sit up and take interest. It would have smelt even better raw.
“Har?” said Ah Ma, who was busy chopping ginger.
“I mean,” said Ah Lee. “When you eat the ginger, can you taste it? Because I can’t. I can only taste people. Everything else got no taste. Like drinking water only.”
Disapproval rose from the aunts and floated just above their heads like a mist. The aunts avoided discussing their undeceased state. It was felt to be an indelicate subject. It was like talking about your bowel movements, or other people’s adultery.
“Why do you ask this kind of question?” said Ah Ma.
“Better focus on your homework,” said Tua Kim.
“I finished it already,” said Ah Lee. “But why do you put in all the spices when you cook, then? If it doesn’t make any difference?”
“It makes a difference,” said Aunty Girl.
“Why do you even cook the people?” said Ah Lee. “They’re nicest when they’re raw.”
“Ah girl,” said Ah Ma, “you don’t talk like that, please. We are not animals. Even if we are not alive, we are still human. As long as we are human we will eat like civilised people, not dogs in the forest. If you want to know why, that is why.”
There was a silence. The liver sizzled on the pan. Ah Ma diced more ginger than anyone would need, even if they could taste it.
“Is that why Sa Ee Poh chops intestines and fries them in batter to make them look like yu char kuay?” asked Ah Lee.
“I ate fried bread sticks for breakfast every morning in my life,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Just because I am like this, doesn’t mean I have to stop.”
“Enough, enough,” said Ah Chor. As the oldest of the aunts, she had the most authority. “No need to talk about this kind of thing. Ah Lee, come pick the roots off these tauge and don’t talk so much.”
The aunts had a horror of talking about death. In life this had been an understandable superstition, but it seemed peculiar to dislike the mention of death when you were dead.
Ah Lee kept running into the wall of the aunts’ disapproval head first. They were a family who believed that there was a right way to do things, and consequently a right way to think. Ah Lee always seemed to be thinking wrong.
She could see that as her caretakers the aunts had a right to determine where she went and what she did. But she objected to their attempts to change what she thought. After all, none of them had died before the age of fifty-five, while she was stuck at sixteen.
“It’s okay if I don’t follow you a hundred percent,” she told them one day in exasperation. “It’s called a generation gap.”
This came after Sa Ee Poh had spent half an hour marvelling over her capacity for disagreement. In Sa Ee Poh’s day, girls did not answer back. They listened to their elders, did their homework, came top in class, bought the groceries, washed the floor, and had enough time left over to learn to play the guzheng and volunteer for charity. When Sa Ee Poh had been a girl, she had positively delighted in submission. But children these days ….
Once an aunt got hold of an observation she did not let go of it until she had crunched its bones and sucked the marrow out, and saved the bones to make soup with later.
“Gap? What gap?” Sa Ee Poh said.
“It’s a branded clothing,” said Aunty Girl. She was the cool aunt. “American shop. They sell jeans, very expensive.”
The aunts surveyed Ah Lee with gentle disappointment.
“Why do you care so much about brands?” said Ah Ma. “If you want clothes, Ah Ma can make clothes for you. Better than the clothes in the shop also.”
So Ah Lee did not tell them about the boy. If the aunts could not handle her having thoughts, imagine how much worse they would be about her having feelings. Especially love–love, stealing into her life like a thief in the night, filling her dried out heart and plumping it out.
Being a vampire was not so bad. It was like eating steak every day, but when steak was your favourite food in the world. It wasn’t anything like the books and movies, though. In books and movies it seemed quite romantic to be a vampire, but Ah Lee and her aunts were clearly the wrong sort of people for the ruffled shirt and velvet jacket style of vampirism.
Undeath had not lent Ah Lee any mystical glamour. It had not imbued her with magical powers, gained her exotic new friends, or even done anything for her acne.
In fact Ah Lee’s life had become more boring post-death than it had been pre-, because at least when she was alive she had had friends. Now she just had aunts. She still went to school, but she was advised against fraternising with her schoolfellows for obvious reasons.
“Anyway, what is friends?” said the aunts. “Won’t last one. Only family will be there for you at the end of the day.”
The sayings of aunts filled her head till they poked out of her ears and nostrils.
Yet here came this boy one fine day, and suddenly her ears and nostrils were cleared. Her head was blown open. The sayings of the aunts fluttered away in the wind and dissolved with nothing to hold on to. Love was like swallowing a cili padi whole.
A classmate caught her staring at the boy the next day.
“Eh, see something very nice, is it?” said the classmate, her voice heavy with innuendo. She might as well have added, “Hur hur hur.”
Fortunately Ah Lee did not have quick social reflexes. Her face remained expressionless. She said contemplatively,
“I can’t remember whether today is my turn to clean the window or not. Sorry, you say what ah? You think that guy looks very nice, is it?”
The classmate retreated, embarrassed.
“No lah, just joking only,” she said.
“Who is that guy?” said Ah Lee, maintaining the facade of detachment. “Is he in our class? I never see him before.”
“Blur lah you,” said the classmate. “That one is Ridzual. He’s new. He just move here from KL.”
“He came to Lubuk Udang from KL?” said Ah Lee.
“I know, right,” said the classmate. This seemed an eccentric move to them both. Everyone had uncles and aunts, cousins, older brothers and sisters who lived in KL. Only grandparents stayed in Lubuk Udang. In three years, Ah Lee knew, none of the people sitting around her in the classroom would still be living there. Lubuk Udang was a place you moved away from when you were still young enough to have something to move for.
Fresh surprises awaited. The first time the boy opened his mouth in class, a strong Western accent came out. It said, “I don’t know” in answer to the obvious question the Add Maths teacher had posed him, but it made even that confession of ignorance sound glamorous.
People said Ridzual had been at an international school in KL. The nearest international school to Lubuk Udang was in Penang, a whole state and Strait away.
“He sounds like TV hor,” said the classmate. “Apparently he was born in US.”
Ridzual called natrium “sodium” and kalium “potassium”. For the duration of his first week at school he wore dazzlingly white hi-top leather sneakers instead of the whitewashed canvas shoes everyone else wore. The shoes didn’t last long–they were really too cool to be regulation. But it didn’t matter that Ridzual had to give them up to the discipline teacher a week after he had started. The aroma of leather hung around him forever after, even when he was only wearing Bata like the rest of the class.
Ah Lee had never been in love but she took to it like a natural despite her lack of practice. She spun secret fantasies about him: the things they would say to each other, the adventures they would have. She would reel off dazzling one-liners; he would gaze at her with intrigued longan seed eyes. She saw them sitting in a cafe unlike any kopitiam to be found in Lubuk Udang, with flowered wallpaper, tiny glossy mahogany tables, and brisk friendly waitresses who took your orders down in a little notebook and did not shout in the direction of the kitchen, “Milo O satu!”
They would sit together at a table, Ridzual’s curly head bent close to her smooth one. They would speak of serious things, but she would also make him laugh. Through this love she would be renewed, brilliant, special.
However lurid her fantasies got, her imagination never stretched beyond conversation. You could not imagine kissing a boy when you were never more than a room’s width away from an aunt. Ah Lee’s favourite time to dream was in that precious space of quiet between getting in bed and falling asleep. She could construct a pretty good Parisian cafe as she lay underneath her Donald Duck blanket. But cafes were one thing: kisses were another. No kiss could survive Ji Ee’s snores from the mattress across the room.
It was no big deal. There was time enough to imagine the later stages of her romance–after all, she had not even got to the overtures. Ah Lee came from a family that believed in being prepared. While staring at the back of Ridzual’s lovely head in class, she wove conversation openers, from the casual to the calculatedly cool.
She then made the fatal mistake of writing them down.
The aunts would have pulled it off if they had left everything to Ji Ee. In life Ji Ee had played the violin. She could have been a professional if her husband had not become envious and depressed, so that she had had to stop playing to keep him happy. She had not touched a violin since, but she still had the soul of an artist. It gave her sensibility.
She sat down next to Ah Lee one day and asked her what she was doing.
Ah Lee was trying to think of nonchalant ways to ask Ridzual what life meant to him.
“Bio homework,” she said. She snapped her exercise book shut.
“Good, good,” said Ji Ee. She looked dreamily into the distance.
They were sitting on the step outside the kitchen door. Behind them came the hiss and clang of Ah Chor making human stomach soup with bucketloads of pepper and coriander. In front of them stood the orchard.
It was one of those blindingly sunny days: the leaves of the trees shone with reflected sunlight, so bright that if you looked at them purple-green shapes remained imprinted on your eyes after you looked away. The heat was relieved by an occasional breeze that lifted the leaves and touched their faces like a caress.
A monitor lizard paused on the branch of a tree to look at them. It blinked and ran up the branch, out of sight.
“When you are young, you must focus,” said Ji Ee. “You must pay attention at school, study hard and become clever. When you are young, that is when you have the best chance. And you are young now, in this modern day, when women can do everything. Can be doctor, can be lawyer. You know none of us went to university. Your Ah Chor wasn’t allowed and when Ah Ma and Sa Ee Poh were young, during the war, everything was too kelam-kabut. I wasn’t clever enough. Aunty Girl’s family couldn’t afford it, so she could only get a diploma.
“But you, Ah Lee, you have all the opportunities. We have lived so long, we have saved enough money. Maybe if you study hard, if you get a scholarship, you could even go to England like my uncle the doctor, your Tua Tiao Kong. Your English is so good. You have a good chance.”
Ah Lee was used to such pep talks. The aunts never scolded; they did not believe in raising their voice. They only “told”. The benefits of only ever being told and not scolded were obvious, but the disadvantage of it was that while people only scolded when you had done something wrong, aunts got to tell all the time.
“I know, Ji Ee,” Ah Lee said. “You all have told me before.” In her daydream Ridzual had been on the point of tucking her hair behind her ear. She was impatient to return to it.
“You must not get distracted by anything,” said Ji Ee. “There will be time for other things when you are older. There is so much time ahead of you. Right now you must focus on your studies. Then we can tell all the neighbours about our clever girl.”
She put her soft hand on Ah Lee’s arm and stroked it. Love came up the arm and melted Ah Lee’s thorny teenaged heart. When Ji Ee said,
“You’ll listen to Ji Ee, ya?”
Ah Lee said pliantly, “Yes, Ji Ee.”
So she never heard the rest of the talk, planned if Ah Lee had proved intransigent, which went into alarming detail about the inadvisability of youthful romance.
The way Ji Ee had two-stepped around the subject matter, Ah Lee would never have known what she was talking about if not for everyone else. All the other aunts believed in the forthright approach, and not one of them could keep a secret.
When Ah Lee came home from school the day after Ji Ee had given her little talk, Ah Chor looked up from the dining table and said,
“Ah girl! Who is this Malay boy? What is he called already?” She turned to Ah Ma. “Ri–Li–Liwat or what?”
Ah Ma did not know any dirty words, and could not have told you what sodomy was if you’d asked her. She said unconcernedly, “Ridzwan, Ma. He is called Ridzwan. Isn’t that right, Ah Lee?”
“Cannot marry a Malay,” Ah Chor told Ah Lee. “They don’t know how to treat their women.”
Ah Lee was surfing the waves of outrage. She started to say, “You all read my diary?” Then she clamped her mouth shut in fury. Of course they had. She could just picture Ji Ee and Aunty Girl reading it out, translating the English and Malay to Hokkien as they went along for the benefit of Ah Chor and Ah Ma and Sa Ee Poh, who could not read. The aunts’ conception of the right to privacy went far enough to allow you to close the toilet door when you were peeing, but no further.
“Ah Ma saw you when you were being born,” Ah Ma said. No further explanation was required.
“Even if you think you will be so happy and the man is so good, you don’t know what can happen,” said Ah Chor. “Do you know or not, they can marry four wives? Malay men …. “
“Si Gu had four wives. He wasn’t even Muslim,” said Aunty Girl.
Ah Chor said repressively, “Your uncle was a very naughty boy.”
“It wasn’t four wives, not four wives,” said Ah Ma. “Only one wife. The others were girlfriends only.”
“The laksa lady cannot even count as girlfriend,” sniffed Sa Ee Poh. “Remember how she threw a bowl of laksa in his face when he told her he wasn’t going to marry her. Even a laksa lady can put on airs like that.”
“She asked him to pay for it some more!” said Ah Ma. She realised they were enjoying reminiscing about her naughty brother’s adventures rather too much, and changed her face to look serious. “Ah Lee, this is what men are like.”
“Not all men,” said Ji Ee.
“Yes, all men,” said Sa Ee Poh.
“Only bad men,” said Ah Ma. “But when you are young you cannot tell whether a man is a good man or a bad man yet. You are too small. Now you must focus on your studies. Don’t think about this Ridzwan.”
“His name,” said Ah Lee, “is Ridzual.”
She stormed out of the kitchen.
From that day there was no respite for her. The aunts abounded in stories of bad men and the bad things they had done to good women.
“Look at your great-grandfather,” said Aunty Girl.
“Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead,” said Ah Ma piously. “He was your grandfather, Ah Girl. You should show respect.”
“No need to respect That Man,” said Ah Chor, who had been That Man’s wife.
“This is what happens when you marry too young,” she told Ah Lee. “That Man didn’t even deserve to be called husband. I was only 19 when I had my third child, your Sa Ee Poh, and already he had a second wife.”
“She lived in Ipoh,” Sa Ee Poh confirmed.
“When I found out, I told him, if you don’t stop seeing her, I will take my children and go,” said Ah Chor. “He promised he wouldn’t see her again. But all along after that, little did I know he was going back and forth between me and that other woman! My fourth child is the same age as her second child. He didn’t know how to feel shame! Never mind my heart. At least if she didn’t have children nobody would know. But he didn’t even care enough to save my face.”
Ah Ma was uncomfortable. “Ma, so long ago … it’s not good to speak bad of other people.”
“Ah Lee must know so she won’t make the same mistake,” said Ah Chor. “He didn’t even support the second wife properly, so she came to me asking for money. When I saw her with the baby, I packed up and brought all my children here. Don’t think this was your grandfather’s house! He was rich before he lost it all in gambling, but this was my parents’ home. His creditors couldn’t touch this. All this was my land. If That Man came on it without my permission, I could call the police on him.”
Ah Lee was interested despite herself. “Did you ever see him again?”
“Of course,” said Ah Chor. “Where do you think your four other great-uncles and great-aunts came from?”
“Ma says too much. Shouldn’t talk about such things,” said Ah Ma to Sa Ee Poh, but Sa Ee Poh only laughed.
“We all know this story already,” she said. “Let Ah Lee listen. Maybe she will learn something also.”
“But you said if he came on your land you would call the police,” Ah Lee said to Ah Chor.
“Oh, he was my husband, after all,” said Ah Chor. “I didn’t let him live here. Only visit. I told him, you can come and stay for good only after you get rid of that woman. But he didn’t, so even after he asked and asked, I never went back to him.
“It wasn’t easy, you know or not? Raising eight children with no husband. Lucky my mother was there to help me. That’s why you cannot think about this kind of thing at your age–men, romance. It’s too early.”
“But Ah Ma married Ah Kong when she was 16,” Ah Lee objected. “I am 17 already.”
“That’s not the same,” said Sa Ee Poh.
Ah Ma stared at her hands on the table.
“You forget, girl,” said Ji Ee gently. “There was a war then.”
Ji Ee’s husband wouldn’t let her play the violin, an iniquity long known to Ah Lee. Curiously, if anything was going to stop Ah Lee’s wayward heart from loving Ridzual, it was Ji Ee’s patience when she talked about Ji Tiao.
“He was a good husband. Men have their little ways. They have their likes and dislikes. As long as they are responsible, as long as they look after you and the children, there’s no harm in letting them have their way.”
Ah Lee was less impressed by the wickedness of Sa Ee Poh’s husband. Sa Ee Poh was the only one who spoke about her husband with the complacency of someone who had asked more of love and always received it. But she still complained about her husband’s vegetarianism.
“Sa Tiao Kong being a vegetarian doesn’t sound so bad,” Ah Lee objected. “How was that suffering for you?”
“You think what? I had to be vegetarian also!” Sa Ee Poh retorted. “You think he cooked for himself? I cooked for the two of us. Vegetarian a few times a year or for a few months, I don’t mind. Vegetarian all the time … for the rest of my life I never tasted garlic or onion!”
Ah Ma kept the story about her marriage for the right time. One night Ah Lee’s evening hunt had taken longer than usual, so she got home late and only managed to finish her Add Maths homework after 11. She was feeling creaky-jointed and lonely as she got ready for bed in a house full of night sounds. The beam of light under Ah Ma’s door came as a pleasant surprise.
She poked her head into Ah Ma’s room. “Not sleeping yet, Ah Ma?”
Ah Ma was lying propped up on the pillows, her eyes half-closed, but when Ah Lee spoke she sat bolt upright.
“No! Cannot sleep,” she said in a blatant lie. “Brushed your teeth already? Come sit down next to Ah Ma.”
Ah Lee climbed into bed to the soft melody of Ah Ma’s fussing: “Come under the blanket, you’ll get cold. Let Ah Ma feel your hands. Ah, see lah, so cold! Next time you mustn’t go out until so late. Not good to work so late at night. Why don’t you want to eat dinner with us?”
“I like to have fresh meat sometimes,” said Ah Lee.
“Then don’t be so picky. Ah Ma always tells you, eat the first man you see.”
“I did, Ah Ma,” Ah Lee protested. Now that she was under the blanket with Ah Ma’s bony arm around her and Ah Ma’s warm chest against her cheek, she felt drowsy, protected. “The guy had a motorbike. Didn’t know how to get rid of it.”
“So how? Did you manage to get rid of it in the end?”
“Yes. Flew out of town and dumped it in the middle of an oil palm plantation. No blood stains, and I took off the licence plate.” Ah Ma tsked.
“So difficult,” she said. “Next time just eat with us. We all have hunted for you already. And we are older than you so we know which people are the nicest to eat.”
“OK, OK,” mumbled Ah Lee.
They sat in silence for a while. Ah Lee half-shut her eyes to keep out the light from the lamp on the bedside table. Through the slits of her eyes she could see Ah Ma’s reading glasses and the container in which she kept her false teeth. The teeth floated in cloudy water, yellowed by coffee and blood.
The cicadas screeched. The ceiling fan hummed to itself. The air was cool enough that the breeze it created was a pleasure rather than the necessity it usually was. Ah Lee forgot the persistent sense of irritation she had had since the aunts had found her diary, which had felt as if she had sand in her underwear. She was almost asleep when Ah Ma spoke.
“Do you know why I married your Ah Kong?” she said.
Embarrassment woke Ah Lee up.
“Don’t know,” said Ah Lee. An expectant pause ensued. Ah Ma was waiting for a better attempt at an answer. “Er … you loved him?”
“Where got?” said Ah Ma. “I was 16, a little girl only. How to know what is love yet? Ah Ma washed your backside when you were a baby. Now that is love.”
“That’s different,” said Ah Lee. “You wouldn’t marry someone just because they didn’t mind washing your backside.”
“Don’t answer back to your elders,” said Ah Ma. “No, I married him because of the war. The Japanese soldiers used to come to everyone’s houses looking for young girls. So Ah Chor cut our hair and put us in our brothers’ clothes. It worked with Sa Ee Poh because she was younger and skinny, but you know when Ah Ma was young Ah Ma was so chubby-chubby. Even wearing boys’ clothes, I still looked like a girl.
“When the soldiers came Ah Chor would tell us to run to the forest behind the house and hide there until the soldiers went away. So horrible! Must lie in the mud. Cannot move even with mosquitoes biting your body. When I came back to the house my face looked like it had pimples all over it because of the mosquito bites, and my legs were covered with leeches. I had to sit down in the kitchen and Ah Chor would put salt on them, but you cannot take them off with your hand, you know? Must wait until they drop off. Then when they came off, my legs would bleed everywhere. So horrible.”
“That’s why you never let me play in the forest,” said Ah Lee. “Because you don’t like leeches.”
Ah Ma nodded.
“One day some soldiers came without warning to our house. I was in the kitchen cutting ubi kayu. Those days we had nothing much to eat, only tapioca that we grew ourselves. There was no time to run out to the forest, so I just tried to make myself look small, bent my head over the chopping board. Your Ah Chor was so scared, she offered them all the food: do you want Nescafe, do you want biscuit, this lah, that lah. And she talked. Usually when the soldiers came we didn’t talk so much. Scared they think we asked questions because we were spies or what. But Ah Chor didn’t want them to look at me, so she kept talking. Did they like Malaya? How was Japan like, not so hot? Her Japanese was not so good but she used every word she knew. When she ran out of words she knew, she repeated everything she’d already said.
“But the soldiers kept looking over at me. I was so scared I cut my finger instead of the ubi and the blood went all over the tapioca. And I didn’t even make a sound. The soldiers drank coffee. They talked to Ah Chor, very friendly. Then they finally got up to go. Suddenly their captain turned around and pointed at me. He said,
“‘Can we have that tapioca?’
“All along they were looking at the ubi kayu on the shelf above my head! We gave them all the ubi we harvested from our own plants, even though we went hungry for the next few days. Your great-grandfather said Ah Chor should have given me away instead.”
“That wasn’t very nice of him,” said Ah Lee.
“Men cannot stand having empty stomachs,” said Ah Ma. “After that your great-grandparents were very anxious to see me married. When your Ah Kong came to lodge with us he was already quite old–38 years old–and we only knew him a few weeks before he asked to marry me. But he was a teacher and an educated man and the Japanese respected him, so my mother and father said yes.”
A hush. Ah Lee said into it, “He wasn’t so bad, was he?” She remembered her grandfather as a benign figure, distant, but kindly enough when he was reminded of your existence.
“Your Ah Kong was a good father,” said Ah Ma. “All his students at his school looked up to him. Even the Japanese could see that he had a good character. And he knew how to be polite. He never said a bad word to me.
“But when a girl marries so young, to someone so much older … and he was educated, and I couldn’t even read. I could hold a pen but I could only draw pictures with it. Ah girl, you must never tell anybody this. But your Ah Kong did not respect me. Without love you can live a happy life. Love is something that will come after you live together with your husband, after you have children together. But a woman should not marry where there is no respect. Respect is the most important thing.
“So you must study hard and go to university. Now, at your age, is not the time to look at boys. Understand or not?”
“Yes,” said Ah Lee. But the mutinous thought rumbled to the surface of her mind: They’re the ones who don’t understand.
When she was a child Ah Lee had often wondered whether adults could read her mind. They seemed to have an uncanny ability to tell what she was thinking at any given moment. Ah Ma evinced this telepathy now:
“Ah, you’re angry already,” she said. “Don’t think so much. Listen to Ah Ma and do what you’re told. Now give me a kiss and go to bed.”
In the end it was not even Ah Lee’s doing. Suddenly, easily, without any need for imaginary cafes or prepared lines scribbled in exercise books, Ah Lee became friends with Ridzual.
It was because of Thursdays. Ji Ee and Aunty Girl were the only two of the aunts who could drive, so it was their job to pick Ah Lee up from school. But they had line dancing every Thursday and so they were an hour late.
Ah Lee usually waited for them in the canteen, doing homework if she felt like it and daydreaming if she didn’t. In the middle of the day there weren’t many people around, and it was pleasant, even quiet. It smelled of grease, heated metal from the car park, and the freshly-washed flesh of the afternoon session kids waiting for school to start.
The background hum of talk and the hiss of oil in frying pans made Ah Lee feel secure. She liked the feeling of being idle while others were busy, alone when others were talking.
It was at this peaceful moment, while Ah Lee was following a drop of condensation on her glass of iced soy bean milk with a finger and thinking about nothing much, that Ridzual tapped her on the shoulder. He said,
“Tamadun Awal, right?”
And that was how she met him. The boy who gave her back her sense of taste.
He dropped his schoolbag on the floor and sat on the bench next to her with an admirable lack of self-consciousness.
“Your name is Eng Ah Lee? Don’t worry, I’m not a stalker. I know ‘cos I was checking out all our team members in class. I’m using this project as an exercise to get to know people. My name’s Ridzual, I’m new. So what do you think of early civilisations? I don’t know shit about them.”
Despite her many fantasies, Ah Lee had not seriously considered ever actually talking to Ridzual. She waited for her throat to close and her muscles to freeze. But she found herself speaking naturally, as if to a friend whom she had known forever.
“It’s OK. I like this kind of thing,” she said. “Anyway, at least it’s not Persatuan Penulis or whatever.”
“Hah! Don’t even say that,” said Ridzual. “No, that’s true. At least with Tamadun Awal maybe we can dress up like Ancient Egyptians or something. I think I’d look good in eyeliner.”
“Nanti kena rotan by the discipline teacher then you know,” said Ah Lee. “You know Puan Aminah doesn’t even let us wear coloured watches. Must be black, plain black strap.” She showed him the watch she was wearing. “Metal watch also cannot. Too gaya konon.”
“Wah lau,” said Ridzual. He said it in a toneless accent Ah Lee found peculiarly charming. “I think that woman is just jealous. Like when she confiscated my shoes. She couldn’t stand looking at them, just got too jealous of my style.”
It would have been obnoxious if he had been serious. But Ridzual wore a perpetual embarrassed smile, an uncertainty around the eyes, that made it obvious that the hot air was just joking. Ah Lee liked vulnerability in a human, and she warmed to this.
“She took your shoes?” she said. They both looked down at his feet, now encased in boring white canvas. “Never give back meh?”
“I never saw them again,” said Ridzual. “I think she’s wearing them now. Sometimes if you look closely you can see the white flash under the hem of her baju ….
“Discipline teachers cannot stand me,” he said mournfully. “I remind them of what they can never achieve. At my last school there was one teacher like that. Encik Velu. He used to chase me around the school with a rotan. He said it’s because I ponteng or I made rude signs at the teacher or I kencing in the beaker or some garbage like that. But he couldn’t fool me. I knew it was because he wished he was like me when he was young, one million years ago.”
“You peed in the beaker?” said Ah Lee.
“Only once,” said Ridzual modestly. “It was for science. I wanted to titrat it but the kimia teacher stop me before I can do it.”
“International school got discipline teacher meh?” said Ah Lee.
“What makes you think I went to international school?” said Ridzual. Ah Lee went pink.
“Your slang,” she said. “You talk like Mat Salleh.”
“Oh, that,” said Ridzual. It was his turn to look embarrassed. “That’s called a Bangsar accent. But don’t hold it against me. I’m trying to be a Lubuk Udangite. A good prawn.”
“I’ve live in Lubuk Udang my whole life,” said Ah Lee.
“Right? What should I do to become a good Lubuk Udangite?”
“Don’t call us prawns,” said Ah Lee.
Ah Lee had not had a friend to spend break with since she’d started at that school. She did not eat during break. It had seemed simpler to avoid the crowd at the canteen, and find some out-of-the-way spot on the school grounds where she could read.
Of course, it had been different before she was dead. But that was before, in another life–and more importantly, at a different school.
Now that she and Ridzual were friends, Ah Lee bought a bag of keropok lekor in the canteen every day and ate them while Ridzual wolfed down a bowl of tomyam noodles.
She had loved the chewy fried fish sticks in life. Now she was dead they tasted of nothing. She ate slowly and threw the remaining keropok away when break was over. She felt bad about the waste of it–heart-pain, the aunts would have said. Ah Lee’s upbringing had trained her to a mindful parsimoniousness, so that it did almost feel like a physical pain to see the fish sticks tumbling into the bin.
She asked Tua Kim if she would disguise some innards for her to take to school.
Tua Kim considered her a moment in silence. Then she said,
“I’ll deep-fry them. They’ll look like chicken nugget.”
She turned back to her washing.
“Er, Tua Kim,” said Ah Lee. “Um, don’t tell the others, OK or not? Ah Chor and Ah Ma and all of them. Ah Ma will scold me for eating fried things. She’ll say I’ll get pimples.”
When Ah Lee saw Tua Kim’s face she felt foolish for the lie.
“This is because of your friend,” Tua Kim said, in the tone of one pointing out an obvious fact to a dim person.
Ah Lee looked down at her feet. Her smallest toes curled in embarrassment.
“I’m shy to be the one not eating,” she mumbled. “People like to eat together.”
“You need your own friends,” said Tua Kim. When Ah Lee peeked up she saw that Tua Kim’s face had not softened. She spoke almost sternly. It was not kindness in her face, but understanding.
“You need your own thing,” said Tua Kim. “Something that’s nothing to do with your family. You feel this especially when you’re young, but even for old people it’s important. Some people don’t understand this kind of thing. So it’s better not to talk so much about it.”
She wiped her hand on a dishcloth and started putting the clean dishes back in the cupboard. “I’ll put your snack in your backpack in the morning. Other people don’t need to see.”
“Thank you, Tua Kim,” said Ah Lee.
She had never thanked an aunt for anything before. It was understood that they would do things for her, that that was the way the world worked. She did not need to thank them any more than trees thanked the sun for shining or the earth thanked the clouds for rain. Ah Lee was not sure the aunts would have understood or even registered any attempt on her part to express gratitude for the many ways in which they cared for her.
It made her feel funny to say the words–stripped, somehow. Skinless and shy. To say it was to contemplate a world in which the aunts did not look after her.
Tua Kim only inclined her head slightly to show she had heard. She made no other response. That was one thing you could rely on Tua Kim for. She had a sense of the appropriateness of things.
The next day at school Ah Lee opened her plastic container and almost felt normal, eating fried kidney nuggets as if she were any ordinary kid at school. Ridzual sneaked looks at the nuggets as he was eating his tomyam noodles. When he had finished his noodles, he said casually,
Ah Lee had expected this. Food was for sharing. If she had been human she would have responded to his interest by offering him a nugget.
This simple unthinking generosity had been put beyond her power after her death–one reason why she had not bothered with friends until Ridzual. Fortunately there was a simple way of avoiding awkwardness.
“Pork,” she said. She ate another nugget.
“I’ve always wondered what pork tastes like,” said Ridzual to the air.
“I’ve always thought it’s very important to respect other people’s religion,” said Ah Lee to the nuggets.
“What is life if you don’t taste everything that the world has to offer?” said Ridzual.
“In this country we must accept other people’s customs,” said Ah Lee. “Not just tolerate, but respect. That is how to live together.”
Ridzual laughed and gave up.
“If you don’t want to share your nugget, say lah,” he said. “Why so shy to admit you’re greedy?”
“Who’s greedy now?” said Ah Lee. “One bowl of tomyam, how many otak-otak–tak cukup ke? Your mother and father don’t feed you?”
“I’m a man! Men need nutrition, OK,” said Ridzual with dignity. Ah Lee made jeering noises through a mouthful of nugget.
Of course perfect happiness could not be allowed to continue without an aunt stepping in to intervene. If anyone had ever dared to suggest to the aunts that children should be allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from them, it would have horrified the aunts.
Ah Lee was doing her Chemistry homework in the kitchen one afternoon when Aunty Girl said,
“Wah, studies so funny meh? Why are you smiling?” For the best chemistry tuition visit us today.
Ah Lee started. She had been thinking about her conversation with Ridzual about nuggets, but she hadn’t realised she was smiling.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Must be that small boy,” said Ji Ee.
“No!” said Ah Lee a little too loudly. “Everything is Ridzual this, Ridzual that. You think that’s the only thing I think about, is it?”
Before this outburst, the aunts had been absorbed in their usual afternoon task of preparing dinner and had only been making chat for the sake of it. They squatted over their buckets of viscera, sorting the nice bits of the human innards (the intestines, the liver, the kidneys, the heart, the lungs) from the less nice bits (the spleen, the gallbladder, the oesophagus).
Now the aunts were all interested. Aunty Girl even washed her bloody hands and came to sit at the table with Ah Lee.
“Who’s this Ridzual?” said Ah Chor.
“She’s talking about that Malay boy, ma,” said Ah Ma. “What’s his name again–Ridzwan.”
“Oh, Ridzwan,” said Ah Chor. “Why, Ah Lee still likes this Ridzwan? I thought that was all finished already!”
“Ah Lee doesn’t so easily forget,” Ji Ee chided.
“That’s right,” said Aunty Girl. “She doesn’t stop liking things so fast. Remember when she was small, she liked that English show, what was it called–” she switched to English for the title: “‘My Little Horsie’. She had all those horse toys, with the long hair and the stars on the backside. She liked it for two years! From four until six.”
“It’s because she has a good memory,” said Ji Ee.
“Children usually don’t remember things for so long,” Ah Ma agreed. “Ah Lee only. Never forgets anything!”
“Men are not like My Little Heh Bee,” said Ah Chor reprovingly. “There’s no problem with liking little heh bee for a long time. But Ah Chor has already told you, so many problems come if you like a man.”
“You should use your good memory to remember what is in your textbooks, not for remembering your boyfriend,” said Sa Ee Poh.
“He is not my boyfriend,” said Ah Lee. “We are just friends. Can’t I have friends?”
“Ah Lee, friends are not a problem,” said Ji Ee.
“No, you cannot have friends,” said Ah Ma.
“Ma,” Ji Ee protested. “You let me have friends when I was Ah Lee’s age. There’s nothing wrong with boy friends–not sweethearts, not at this age, but boy friends are OK. That’s normal.”
“Your time was different,” said Ah Ma. “Ah Lee is not like you. Ah Lee is not normal.”
She looked up at Ah Lee.
“Ah Lee, you are not like any of us,” she said. “When we were young we could have boy friends.”
“We couldn’t,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Not you and me. Never mind sweethearts. Ma didn’t even allow us just to be friends with boys.”
“Yes, I never let you,” Ah Chor agreed. “After a certain age, it doesn’t look nice for a good girl to be around boys too much.”
Ah Ma ignored them.
“When we were older we could get married, and everybody could come to our wedding,” she said. “There was nothing to hide. It’s not the same for you.
“Ah Ma wants you to get married some day. Ah Ma wants you to graduate from university. Maybe you will never have children, but you can be a good scholar and have a good job. Other people will admire you. Your husband will respect you.
“But for this to happen, people cannot know. You must be very careful. You have to go to school so you can study, but you must make sure people don’t remember you. No friends. Don’t talk too much to teachers. You remember we all told you this before you started school again.”
Ah Lee remembered. She stared at her exercise book. Ridzual had written “what does any of it MEAN” at the bottom of the page. She had whited it out with liquid eraser, but the words showed through after the white fluid had dried.
“If you are friends with Ridzual that is even worse than if you like him,” said Ah Ma tenderly. “You must not go around with him anymore.”
“Don’t do it suddenly,” said Ji Ee. “Slowly just become more distant. Don’t drop him immediately, but don’t need to talk to him so much. He will get the hint.”
“Things will change in the future,” said Aunty Girl. “When you are older, at university, it’ll be easier to hide. You can have friends there. But this place is too small. Everybody knows everybody’s business. It’s better to keep to yourself.”
“There’s no need to be so sad, girl,” said Sa Ee Poh. “Even if you hurt his feelings, he won’t remember you after a while. Young people recover very fast.”
I will remember, thought Ah Lee. She did not want to cry because the aunts made such a fuss when you cried. She gulped and squeezed her pen and looked at Tua Kim.
Tua Kim was sorting through the slippery organs, listening to the conversation but not part of it. She said, eyes still on the bucket, “Every woman has secrets.”
“Hah! Very true,” said Aunty Girl. “When you get married, you won’t be the only bride who knows something the groom doesn’t know. Cousin Kah Hoe didn’t even know his wife was pregnant until she had the baby six months after the wedding.”
“He never found out who the father was also,” said Sa Ee Poh.
“Shh! Eh, enough!” said Ah Chor, scandalised. “Shouldn’t talk about such things.”
“Don’t listen to your naughty aunties,” Ah Ma told Ah Lee.
How could you die and not be old enough to hear about premarital sex? How could you die and still not be allowed to fall in love or be honest? Surely not everything had to wait for university and a good job. Passion and truth had to trump even those things.
Still, it wasn’t a conscious decision on Ah Lee’s part to rebel. She was not even thinking about the many-aunted lecture when the urge to candour came to her.
It was a Thursday again, Ji Ee and Aunty Girl’s line dancing day, and Ah Lee and Ridzual were hanging around waiting for their respective rides home. They had found the perfect width of concrete ledge to sit on next to the monsoon drain outside their school. From here they had an unobstructed view of the road, and a big leafy flame-of-the-forest provided dappled shade.
It was so sunny the whole world gave off a metallic glare. Ah Lee and Ridzual sat on their ledge, squinting at the road.
Ah Lee surprised herself when she said,
“Ridzual, do you have any secrets?”
Once it was out she felt a great sense of relief. She knew she wanted to tell him. She was sick of keeping everything important to herself, hidden away from the piercing gaze of the aunts.
“Yah,” said Ridzual slowly. “Yes. Funny you should say that. I’ve been thinking I should tell you one of them.”
Ah Lee was nonplussed.
“Oh, but I was going to tell you–” she said. “Um, never mind.”
“Oh, if you were going to say something, then you should say first,” said Ridzual.
“No, it’s OK, you go first,” said Ah Lee.
“My secret isn’t very interesting,” said Ridzual. “You say first lah.”
“My one is very interesting,” said Ah Lee firmly. “It’ll take long time to tell. You go first.”
“Cannot,” said Ridzual. He got up off the ledge, fell into a squat, bent his head and put his hands in his hair.
Ah Lee started to feel worried. She had never seen Ridzual act like this before. Something seemed really wrong. Maybe something bad had happened at home. She got up and touched his shoulder.
“Eh, why like this? What’s wrong?”
“My life,” moaned Ridzual.
Ah Lee felt relieved. If Ridzual was in a good enough mood to whine then he was manageable.
“Eh! Merajuk already,” she said. “Don’t need to sulk like that. How old are you?”
When Ridzual lifted his head she saw his eyes were wet.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s nothing to you. There’s nothing wrong. I just like you, that’s all. That’s my big secret. Probably you know already, probably it is very obvious. You want you laugh lah. But it’s the first time I’ve ever been in l-love, so sorry if I want to make a big fuss about it.”
He shoved his head under his arm and sniffed.
Ah Lee did not know what face to make.
“Oh,” she said foolishly. “Oh–but–“
Ridzual threw up his hand.
“It’s OK!” he said. “Don’t say! I know the answer. I’ve embarrassed myself enough. Just out of the kindness of your heart, can you please don’t say anything?”
“For five minutes!” said Ridzual. “In five minutes my dignity will return. Just leave me in peace to enjoy my misery for five minutes, OK?”
Ah Lee began to frown.
“Don’t need to be so drama,” she said. “You think this is Cantonese serial or what? I had something to tell you too, remember?”
There was a pause in which Ridzual did not move or even show that he had heard. Then he rubbed his eyes. He rearranged his limbs, sat down on the ledge, and looked at her.
“Sorry,” he said. “That wasn’t so gallant of me.”
“No,” Ah Lee agreed. “Not gallant langsung.”
“I’m not so good at this love declaration stuff,” said Ridzual.
“You don’t have to agree when I kutuk myself!” said Ridzual. He gave her the sweetest half-smile. His eyes were red and his lashes were still wet.
“What did you want to tell me?” he said.
“I–” said Ah Lee.
She found she could not do it. It was absurd. She had promised herself that she would tell him that she liked him, and not just as a friend. She liked him liked him.
It had seemed so easy five minutes ago. It ought to be even easier now. She had only to say, “I like you back.” But what if Ridzual didn’t believe her? What if he thought she was just saying it to comfort him? What if, once she said it, he revealed that he had just been joking about liking her? Could she stand to give so much of herself away?
The words stuck in her throat. She said:
Through a process of thought even she did not understand, she swerved and went for what felt like the less difficult truth. She said:
“I’m a vampire.”
It was not the most intelligent thing she had ever done.
“What?” said Ridzual.
“That’s why you can’t share my nuggets,” Ah Lee said wildly. “They’re not not-halal because they’re made of pork. They’re not halal because they’re made of human.”
At first Ridzual looked as if he might believe her. He looked at her for a long time, his mouth grim. His eyebrows knitted, his mouth twisted–then his face cleared and he laughed.
“You’re such a freak,” said Ridzual. “You’re the weirdest person I know. Is that how you always try to change the subject in an awkward situation? ”Scuse me, sir, your fly is undone. But don’t worry about it, I’m a werewolf!'”
He rubbed his eyes.
“Sorry ya,” he said. “I’ll be normal again soon.”
Ah Lee should have been relieved, or maybe touched, or any one of a number of benign emotions. Instead she felt vexed. You told someone the biggest secret you had and they didn’t even take you seriously!
“You know, everything is not about you,” she snapped. “I don’t say things just because of you. Men!”
She changed to show him. It was always too easy to change when she was angry.
What was she thinking? she asked herself later. She knew that love was supposed to make you act funny, but she did not know that it could actually deprive you of all common sense. Or kindness. It was not kind to show that to a human.
What Ridzual saw was a cold grey face, a face incontrovertibly dead. The features were Ah Lee’s own everyday features, but the skin did not have the comforting human glow–the flush in the cheek, the sweat on the upper lip. The texture of it was such that it did not even look like skin. Her face looked like it was made out of plastic.
The long black hair hung around the face lankly. The eyes were white. When her mouth opened, a musty inorganic smell gusted out. The tongue was bright red, the colour of fresh arterial blood, and it was too long.
The teeth were perfectly ordinary.
Maybe a part of her was hoping that he wouldn’t be horrified, that he would still like her. Most of her was the sensible Ah Lee she had always been, however, so it was with resignation that she watched Ridzual step back, drop his schoolbag, whimper and turn and run.
She watched him run down the road, his limbs flailing and growing smaller. When he reached the junction at the end of the road, he stopped and doubled over. He would be bathed in sweat–the sun was unforgiving today, and Ridzual always skipped PE classes. He paused and Ah Lee could almost see him wonder whether he should scrape up his dignity and come back to the forgiving shade, or keep jogging and probably have sunstroke.
She felt her tragedy crust over with awkwardness.
“Why this kind of thing always happen to me?” said Ah Lee miserably.
But then, thank all the gods that ever were, Ji Ee’s small brown Proton turned into the road. In five minutes Ah Lee would be able to get into the car and pretend she didn’t see Ridzual walking back to their spot next to the monsoon drain, his hand shielding his eyes, his eyes not looking in her direction.
Ah Lee could not bear to ask Ah Kim to stop making her fried human nuggets. The first day after her confession she took them to the canteen as usual.
But then it was an agony to be sitting alone. It took so long to chew each nugget when she wasn’t using her mouth for talking. She caught glimpses of Ridzual through the crowd, queueing up for his tomyam and awkwardly not looking at anyone because he didn’t have any friends except her. The nuggets tasted like paper. It was as if she was eating human food.
After that she avoided the canteen. Behind one of the school blocks there was a narrow channel that ran between the building and the wall that surrounded the school grounds. It had become a repository for unwanted things: buckets of dried paint were lined up along the wall, and broken old furniture came here to die. Ah Lee fit right in. Here she could sit and read in peace, just as she had done before she’d ever become friends with Ridzual.
A week after her life was ruined–five long, dreary days during which she and Ridzual carefully ignored each other at school–she had only got seven pages into her book. She was reading the eighth page at break, the words flying out of her mind the minute they entered through her eyes, when Ridzual said,
Ah Lee jumped and punched Ridzual in the chin.
“Ow!” said Ridzual.
“What lah you, coming out of nowhere like that,” Ah Lee snapped, to cover her relief.
“Sorry lah,” said Ridzual in a mild complaining tone. He rubbed his jaw. “What is this, WWF? Man, you have a strong right hook.”
Awkwardness rose like a wall between them.
“It’s because I did taekwando since I was small,” said Ah Lee flatly. “Not because I died.”
Ridzual looked around for a chair, but failed to locate one. In a government school chairs only got rejected from classroom duty for a real fault, such as having a hole in the middle of the seat, or being in several pieces. He sat down on the ground instead.
“I didn’t even know such things were real,” he whispered. He did not look up at her. “How did you become a–a–“
“Vampire?” said Ah Lee.
“Is that what you call it?” said Ridzual. “Isn’t that a bit different?”
Ah Lee said, “You want to say it? You want to tell me what am I?”
Ah Lee never said her real name herself.
‘Vampire’ was safe. ‘Vampire’ was like Dracula, like goofy old black and white films, like pale ang moh boys who swooned over long-haired girls. Vampire was funny, or sexy, depending on which movie you watched.
The right word was not funny. It was not sexy. Most of all, it was not safe.
Ridzual had a boyish disregard for subtextual cues. He did not seem to notice how wound up Ah Lee was. He said, softly, as if he were speaking to himself,
“You know, I like you. I really like you.”
“Har,” said Ah Lee noncommittally.
“I’ve really never liked anyone as much as I like you,” said Ridzual. “In my life. Not even as a, a girl. I’ve never even had a friend I liked as much as you.
“When I’m with you I feel like life is exciting. Like everything has an interesting secret behind it, like nothing is normal or boring. That’s how you make me feel. Not even by doing anything. Just when I’m hanging out with you.”
Ah Lee said in a stifled voice, “That’s how I feel when I’m with you too.”
Ridzual reached down to into his pocket.
“That’s why you deserve this,” he said.
Ah Lee had just enough time to register that he had a long, rusty nail in his hand when Ridzual flung himself at her, aiming the nail at her throat.
When you are dead, certain things stop mattering as much as they do to the living. Time, weight, pain all lose some of their meaning.
The protein-high diet and frequent exercise in chasing down prey are also excellent for the muscles.
Ah Lee caught Ridzual’s lunging body and threw him with no trouble. While he lay on the ground, stunned, she slipped the nail out from between his fingers.
“What’s this?” she shouted. “What’s this? You trying to play the fool, is it?”
She felt as if the top of her head had come off.
Ridzual looked terrified.
“I was–I was–“
“What?” roared Ah Lee.
“I just–” Then Ridzual said, in one breath, “I googled and it said if I put a nail in your neck you would stop being a hantu and become a beautiful woman, and I thought maybe then we could be together, but turn out I wasn’t fast enough, I’m sorry–“
“How dare you?” gasped Ah Lee.
“I just wanted to save you, OK!” Ridzual rubbed his eyes. “I’m sorry I couldn’t make it in time.”
“Who you think you’re talking to?” said Ah Lee. “There is no Ah Lee the vampire and Ah Lee your friend–the girl who use to be your friend. I am just one person. If you make not a vampire anymore, doesn’t mean we can be–be dating. If you make me not a vampire anymore, means there is no me anymore. You understand?”
She threw the nail on the ground. She wasn’t quite angry enough to aim it at Ridzual, but it pleased her in a horrible way when he flinched.
“And one more thing,” said Ah Lee. “I am already a beautiful woman, dungu!”
She stomped off without looking back.
Ah Lee felt strong and brave all day, big with her righteous anger like a balloon full of air. It took her through the rest of the school day and the ride home.
When she took off her shoes at the front door the air hit her nose, crowded with homey smells: coriander and hong yu and the stale scent of clean blankets. The balloon popped. Ah Lee drew in a huge breath and expelled it as a sob.
She sat down on the sofa in the living room and wept for half an hour.
“Girl, what’s the matter?” said Ji Ee.
“What’s happening?” said Ah Chor.
“Hao ah,” said Ah Ma. “Crying!”
“Crying?” said Ah Chor. “Ah Lee is crying?”
“You’re crying, is it?” said Sa Ee Poh.
The diagnosis bounced from aunt to aunt, each aunt repeating it to another for certainty.
“So old already still crying!” said Ah Chor.
“Nobody has died. Your stomach is not empty. What is there to cry about?” said Sa Ee Poh.
“Ah girl, don’t cry lah, ah girl,” said Ji Ee.
“Teacher scolded you, is it?” said Ah Ma. “Or is it because Ji Ee and Aunty Girl were late when they picked you up from school?”
“Ah, that’s it, late!” said Ah Chor sternly. “Always late! What’s the use of all this line-dancing? Now you are late to pick Ah Lee up and you have made her cry.”
“She is so big already. I thought she can look after herself for an hour,” said Aunty Girl, but she spoke with contrition, conscious that she was in the wrong.
“Ah girl, don’t cry,” said Ji Ee. “Ji Ee won’t be late anymore. We don’t need to go dancing. Ah, so old already, we won’t miss it!”
Ah Lee loved that Ji Ee and Aunty Girl danced. Her voice pushed through the terrible loneliness that locked her throat and said,
“It’s not that!”
“What is it?” said Aunty Girl.
“I never believed in all this dancing thing,” said Ah Chor. “In my time girls didn’t put themselves up there on the stage for people to look at it. It’s not so nice.”
“Ma, their dancing is not like cabaret,” said Sa Ee Poh. “It is exercise, like taichi or aerobic. Anyway the girls are so big already. Why not let them do it?”
“Ah Lee says it’s not that anyway,” said Ah Ma. “What is it, girl?”
But Ah Lee couldn’t say.
Tua Kim was the only one who had stayed in the kitchen when Ah Lee started crying. Now the sound of the tap running stopped and she came into the room, wiping her hands on a rag. A momentary lull had fallen as the aunts waited for Ah Lee to reply, so everyone heard Tua Kim when she spoke, even though her voice was as quiet as it always was.
“What did the boy do?” said Tua Kim.
The silence flattened out and grew solid.
In the hush, Tua Kim sat down on the sofa next to Ah Lee and put her arm around her. The aunts were not from a generation that hugged. Tua Kim did it in a detached, almost a clinical way. In the same way the aunts had picked Ah Lee up and carried her when she was too exhausted to walk, those first few hours after she died.
“Tell Tua Kim,” said Tua Kim.
So she did.
Ah Lee went to bed feeling pleasantly hollow and tired from crying so much. Her eyes were red and the skin around her nostrils was rough, but she felt clean and quiet inside. Aunt after aunt came into her room on some pretext, to lay their soft wrinkled hands on her head and make sure her blanket was tucked around her properly. She slept like the virtuous dead, dreamless and innocent.
The next morning she felt newly-minted, born again. She walked past Ridzual’s desk without a tremor, and went home feeling almost happy, feeling like maybe she could get over him and it would be OK some day.
It would start hurting again soon. The sense of invulnerability wouldn’t last forever. The aunts would stop spoiling her and start chiding her for still being upset about it. But some day she’d stop being upset, stop missing Ridzual at all, and when she was done with school she would go to university far away from Lubuk Udang, and maybe there she’d meet someone nicer than Ridzual.
She needed quiet to study Add Maths, so instead of working in the kitchen as usual, she sat down in her room and buried herself in exercises until the light turned. She switched on her desk lamp, and the action made her aware of a quietness in the house.
She got up and walked through the silent dark house, wondering. There was no one in the kitchen. The living room was empty. It was six thirty, past the hour when Sa Ee Poh’s favourite Cantonese serial would have begun–and yet the house was auntless.
They must have gone out hunting, though it was late for that. Ah Lee herself preferred to hunt at night, under the cover of darkness, but the aunts did not even think you should laugh loudly before going to bed, or it would give you nightmares. Hunting was considered far too stimulating an activity to engage in so close to bedtime. They preferred to hunt in the afternoon, when the household chores were done and the humans were dozy.
It was strange that they had all gone out at the same time. Even on the rare occasion that the aunts went out hunting in a body, one of them usually stayed at home–often Tua Kim, because Tua Kim disliked the mess and exertion of hunting. Somebody had to make sure Ah Lee had fed herself and did her homework. Somebody had to look after her.
With that thought, Ah Lee knew where the aunts had gone.
She didn’t bother going back to her room to turn off the lights, or changing out of her pasar malam T-shirt and faded grey shorts, or putting on shoes. She burst through the back door and leapt straight out in the evening sky.
Most of the time Ah Lee was a girl. Her body and her mind were more used to it. Being in vampire mode made her uncomfortable. She avoided it as much as she could.
But whenever she slipped into it, it was like putting on a pair of slippers after a long day of standing in high heels, like stepping out of a ferociously air-conditioned room into the welcoming warmth of the outside world.
Her whole self relaxed. Her body became a weapon: smells grew sharp, her vision cleared. Ordinary thoughts were big vague clouds, too complicated and light to bother about, and through the clouds thrust the one vital thing, red and pulsing like a fresh bruise–hunger.
Hovering above Lubuk Udang, she became invisible. The dying sunlight shone through her bones. The scents of the town floated up to her: a woman’s jasmine-scented hair, the stink of the underarms of a tired hawker stallholder, the smell of someone’s earwax. Anything else, anything not human, smelt pale in comparison, like water, but she could distinguish those scents if she concentrated hard enough, pulling them up from beneath the textured smells of humans.
The aunts would smell of nothing. But she knew Ridzual’s scent. She sorted through the scents coming to her on the wind; his wasn’t there. It might be too late already. How long had it been since they’d left? And once Ridzual was meat she wouldn’t be able to find him–he wouldn’t smell of himself anymore. He would just smell of food.
She dove through the sky, following her nose.
The sky was going grey and the sunlight was fading when Ridzual left school. His dad would be busy getting dinner ready and his mom was outstation, so he’d told his dad he would cycle home. It would take half an hour, but the air was soft and humid in the evening, cool enough to cycle.
He hated koku, but he’d stayed for the extra few hours of marching in his Scouts uniform, sweating under the blistering sun in a desperate attempt to fit in. It was probably worth it. If he didn’t go, he would probably fit in even less, whereas at least now people knew who he was. Last week one guy had even thwacked him on the back in a friendly way, yelling, “Oi! What’s up, Mohsein?”
Of course, he had then had to explain that he wasn’t Mohsein, which had dampened the atmosphere of warmth and camaraderie slightly. But they had recognised the name when he said, “I’m Ridzual,” or at least they had said, “Oh, Ridzwan, is it?”
Maybe he wasn’t friends the way the other guys were with each other. Maybe they didn’t shout, “Oi, macha!” when they saw him, or request that he “relaklah, brother!”, or imply heartily that he was gay in some sort of macho bonding ritual.
But Ridzual had never been the kind of guy who attracted that response from his fellow guys, and he was OK with that. He flew under the radar enough that he’d never been bullied. People let him do his own thing, and that was all he wanted. He hadn’t even really noticed not having friends. In KL he’d hung out with his cousins, who were used to him being the weird one and didn’t hold it against him, and here in Lubuk Udang there was Ah Lee.
Had been. There had been Ah Lee.
His brain had successfully been avoiding the subject of her for all of ten minutes, but now it slid back down the old path. He kept forgetting and thinking of her as his friend, as the girl he’d fallen in love with. And if you thought of her as a human being, it was horrific what he had done to her. He had been a prize asshole, an unmitigated jerk.
But before he could begin beating himself up for messing up the best thing that had ever happened to him, he’d remember that face she’d turned to him. And that made him not know how to feel again. That face had not been human. Kindness wasn’t a thing that lived in the same world as that face.
He’d been having nightmares ever since he saw it. The teeth, he’d think in the dream, struggling in the grip of terror, the teeth.
That was the scariest thing. The one mad, inexplicable thing in the whole mad, inexplicable situation that got to him.
How come there wasn’t anything wrong with her teeth?
They had been perfectly human teeth. Even, rounded at the edges, slightly yellow.
He had to stop thinking about this. There was nothing he could do about it. Maybe she wasn’t a vampire. Maybe she was deluded and he’d been hallucinating. Or maybe she was a vampire, but she wouldn’t kill and eat him as long as he left her alone. She knew he wouldn’t tell anyone. Who could he tell? Who believed in vampires anyway?
“Stupid,” said Ridzual aloud. The word wasn’t ‘vampire’. ‘Vampire’ wasn’t scary enough to describe the thing he’d seen. It was like calling a toyol a pixie.
“Not vampire,” said Ridzual. “The word is ‘pontianak’.”
The problem with Ridzual was that he was a city boy. He’d grown up watching Japanese superhero TV shows and reading Archie comics. He hadn’t really known his grandparents–they’d died when he was too little to hold conversations, much less be told scary stories.
So he knew nothing.
He didn’t recognise the scent that sprang out of the evening then, though he registered it as something floral. It reminded him of Ah Lee: it smelled of her. It was funny that it had never occurred to him that Ah Lee might use perfume.
He’d cycled on a little further when he heard the baby crying. A long wail, followed by a piteous sob-sob-sob that pierced the heart. It was startling how close it was–practically next to his ear. He braked by the side of the road and got off his bike.
It was an odd place for a baby to be. He was standing on the edge of a car park. Across the road was a row of shoplots, their signs still lit up, but the entrances were a line of closed grey faces.
The car park was an expanse of orange earth, dusty and crumbling and covered with weeds. It was fenced with rusting wire, and shrubs ran along its periphery. There weren’t many cars parked there, and the booth at the entrance was dark.
The falling light turned the place eerie. It was the kind of place where you could get done for khalwat, or be murdered, depending on who else was around.
It was the kind of place where you could dump a baby, if you needed to.
He’d read about baby-dumping in the newspapers. But you never thought you’d encounter such things yourself. And not in such a place as this, surely–a nice small town? This wasn’t KL.
Who would dump a baby? said a voice in Ridzual’s head. Someone young, who wasn’t supposed to be doing anything that would lead to a baby in the first place. Someone scared.
He parked his bike on the pavement and walked into the car park. The floral scent grew stronger, though there weren’t any flowers around that he could see–only the bushes, strung out around the car park like a salad God had started eating and left forgotten on His plate.
The baby would be somewhere in there, probably. But he couldn’t seem to work out where. The farther he walked in what he thought was the direction of the sound, the softer the baby’s cries got.
It was getting darker. The world was a pale purply-blue, and the moon showed clear in the sky. The car park was full of dark shapes–empty cars, rustling bushes. The cicadas were screaming their heads off, and the baby was getting so soft he could hardly hear it through the insects–but it was still crying, a long drawn-out wail, trailing off in a hopeless series of hiccups.
He was terrified, but if he was scared, how would an abandoned baby feel?
He found something behind the next bush. It wasn’t a baby, though. It was an old lady, lying crumpled on the ground in a pathetic heap of batik and grey hair.
“Shit,” said Ridzual without thinking. He bent down and reached out to touch the lady’s shoulder: “Sorry, mak cik. Are you OK?”
The face the mak cik turned to him was a normal mak cik face. She was a Chinese lady with fluffy white hair and a mole on her left cheek. She looked like any other auntie you might see at the pasar basah. Her teeth were perfectly ordinary. She was dead.
Ridzual stumbled back. He was shaking so hard his teeth rattled in his head.
Teeth! Of course there was nothing wrong with the teeth. Teeth was vampires. Pontianak didn’t pierce the neck with fangs. They didn’t drink your blood.
The mak cik held her hands out to Ridzual, as if she was going to hug him, pet his hair. Her hands were small and delicate. The fingernails were long, curving and yellow–and blunt.
It would take a long time for those fingernails to pierce his belly, for them to scoop out the intestines. It would hurt.
The others came out of the bushes one by one. They were all little old ladies–little old Chinese ladies in those Chinese old lady clothes that looked like pajamas. All with long, blunt fingernails. All dead.
“No,” someone whimpered. Ridzual thought of the baby before realising it was his own voice. “No, no, please, no–“
He turned and went running, crashing through the bushes. Somewhere in the distance a baby was screaming breathlessly, but he knew the wail was issuing from six dry old dead mouths, and it grew softer and softer the closer they were.
His chest was a great flame of pain. He banged his hand against the side-mirror of a car and knew it would hurt later (if there was a later), but it felt like nothing now. He couldn’t hear the baby anymore.
A weight hit him in the back and he went down, sobbing. The fingernails dug into his side. Cold musty breath gusted on his ear. He was going to die. He was sorry for everything. The fingernails cut into his skin, raising welts, and he opened his mouth to scream.
The next minute his mouth was full of earth and pebbles. Something had hit the creature on his back a full-body blow, the impact driving Ridzual’s face into the ground. The pontianak rolled off his back, ripping his T-shirt in the process.
They must be fighting over him. There wasn’t enough of him to go around, even if they were small. Old ladies didn’t usually have much of an appetite, but pontianak were probably different. He had a second while they were distracted, but no more. He struggled to his feet, willing his limbs to move.
It came as something of a surprise to hear one of the pontianak saying, in an angry mak cik croak,
“Ah girl, what you doing here? You go home right now! So late already!”
He should run.
He turned around slowly.
It was Ah Lee, glaring at the old lady who had been about to eat him.
“Who ask you to eat my schoolmate?” she said shrilly. “How’m I suppose to go back to school now? So lose face!”
The pontianak crowded around. Weirdly, they had lost all their eldritch horror: they looked like ordinary mak cik now. They were definitely talking like aunties, in indignant high-pitched Hokkien.
“And what are you doing?” snapped Ah Lee.
“Me? What am I doing? What are you doing?” said Ridzual.
“Standing around like this! You want to be eaten, is it?” said Ah Lee.
“No!” said Ridzual.
“Go away,” said Ah Lee.
Ridzual had one last chance. He didn’t understand everything that had just happened–in fact, it would be more accurate to say that he didn’t understand anything that had just happened. But she’d saved his life, and not, it appeared, because she wanted to eat him herself.
You wouldn’t save someone’s life if you were a monster, would you?
You wouldn’t save someone if you thought they were a monster.
“Ah Lee,” said Ridzual. “We need to talk.”
“Not now,” said Ah Lee. Her voice was a door closing. “I need to talk to my family.”
The last he saw of her, in that dwindling light, was her gallant back moving away from him, and the cloud of aunts drawing in around her.
Ah Lee decided to try something new.
In the morning she waited outside the school gate until Ridzual arrived. When his parents’ car had driven off, she said,
They couldn’t go to a kopitiam or mamak restaurant in their school uniforms, so they went to a nearby park. It was early, cool enough to walk. They didn’t talk much on the way.
There were a couple of people in the park–an uncle and an auntie, walking in circles with serious intent looks on their faces. But the kids’ playground was empty and they settled down on the swings there. Ridzual broke the silence first.
“What happened last night, after I went?”
“Oh. Nothing much,” said Ah Lee.
“Was it–” Ridzual hesitated. “Did they–?”
Ah Lee stared at him mutely.
Dealing with the aunts had actually been less difficult than she had expected. They had told her off for not staying home and doing her homework, but it was a half-hearted telling off. The aunts knew they had forfeited the moral high ground by trying to eat her classmate. Ah Lee had listened without saying a word to their unconvinced lectures as they flew home.
At the door, she had turned and said to the aunts:
“We are not dogs in the forest.”
She had gone straight to bed without speaking to anybody.
She felt guilty about it in the morning–she had said too much. The aunts had already known that they’d overstepped the line, broken the rules by which they operated. The aunts seemed to feel equally ashamed, tiptoeing around her at breakfast.
She had kissed Ah Ma with special tenderness before leaving for school, particularly as she was already planning to ponteng and knew how shocked the aunts would be at that. Non-attendance at school would probably seem a worse crime to them than eating humans.
She didn’t know how to explain any of this to Ridzual. It all seemed too complicated.
“Did you have to fight, or–I don’t know–something,” said Ridzual. Ah Lee could tell that he was already feeling foolish about having asked. “I mean–never mind.”
“Do you really eat people?”
“Not really people,” said Ah Lee. “Only their, you know, their usus all that. Their entrails.” She tapped her belly. “We don’t like all the other part.”
Ridzual screwed up his mouth. But he only said:
“Thanks for not eating me. And not letting those others eat me.”
Ah Lee shrugged. “Usually they won’t eat you anyway. We don’t eat people we know. They all were just angry only.”
Ridzual looked down at his feet. He was scratching shapes in the sand with the toe of one shoe.
“You guys can’t eat anything else?” he said. “Like, animal intestines?”
“Do you eat good people as well, or only bad people, or–?”
“We don’t eat women,” said Ah Lee. “And we don’t eat people we know. That’s all. I don’t pick and choose, depending if I like your face or I don’t like your face so much.”
“Not women?” said Ridzual. “I didn’t realise vampires did affirmative action.”
“It’s already suffering enough to be a woman,” Ah Lee recited. “Don’t need people to eat you some more.”
This was Ah Chor’s line, but the aunts were unanimous on this. Hadn’t Ah Ma told Ah Lee how she had cried whenever she gave birth to a daughter, because she knew what sorrow lay in her future?
“After all there’s enough men around,” added Ah Lee.
Ridzual grinned, but he looked a little sick.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” he said. “At all?”
Ah Lee stared into the distance. It was hard to explain. She had felt differently about these things when she was living.
“I know what you are trying to say,” she said. “But it’s like animals.”
“You feel it’s like eating animals?”
“No!” said Ah Lee. “It’s like I’m the animal now. After I die I kind of became an animal. When I’m hungry, when I eat, there’s no feeling. Afterwards maybe some feeling, I feel a bit bad. But that’s why we don’t simply just eat people. We process them first. My aunties like to make pepper soup. You know too thor t’ng? Pig stomach soup? Like that, but not with pig stomach.”
“Oh,” said Ridzual faintly. “Wait, all those old ladies last night–they’re your aunties?”
“One is my grandma and one is my great-grandma,” said Ah Lee. “The others are my aunties. But don’t you think it’s a bit weird if there’s so many vampire in a small town like this and they don’t know each other?”
Ridzual opened his mouth. Then he closed it, his throat working.
“That’s definitely weird,” he said in a strangled voice.
“Anyway, don’t worry about my aunties. They won’t eat you,” said Ah Lee. “I told them already. And I won’t eat you. Never never.”
“I know,” said Ridzual.
Ah Lee looked at the ground. She felt her eyes start to prickle, so she said it quickly.
“Are you going to try to nail me?”
She was startled and not a little offended when Ridzual started chortling.
“What’s so funny?” Ah Lee demanded.
“Er,” said Ridzual. “It’s an American thing. Maybe I’ll tell you some day.”
“This is suppose to be serious!” said Ah Lee.
“Sorry, sorry.” Ridzual wiped his eyes. “I’m not going to nail you. No.”
Saying it seemed to sober him up.
“I’m sorry I tried it,” he said.
“Thank you,” said Ah Lee. Now the next thing. “You don’t have to be friend with me anymore. I won’t be offended. I’ll understand.”
She had to say it. Then it would be done, finished, and they could both go back to their respective lives with all of this behind them.
“It was kind of worth it.” Ah Lee kept her eyes on the ground. She would be too shy to say it if she looked at Ridzual. “Ever since I became like this, I didn’t really have friends. It was a bit lonely. So it was nice having you.”
“I don’t want to be friends with you,” said Ridzual.
Ah Lee had expected this answer, but she was still taken aback by how much it hurt to hear it. She had been sad about him enough, she told herself sternly. All the aunts had said that.
“Don’t waste so many tears on one man,” they had scolded, as if it would have been all right to spread the tears over several men, but not to allocate so many to only one person.
Ah Lee, having been brought up to hate waste, agreed with them. She locked her hands together and blinked furiously. Her chest ached.
“OK,” she said.
Ridzual touched her hand. Ah Lee clenched it into a fist so he couldn’t take it, but then he tried to pry her fingers apart one by one. Of course it didn’t work. Ah Lee started giggling.
“Ah, I give up,” said Ridzual, exasperated. “I’m a moron to try to fight a pontianak. But look, ‘I don’t want to be your friend’ doesn’t mean ‘I don’t want to hang out with you’. There can be another meaning.”
“What another meaning?” said Ah Lee. She looked up when he didn’t answer.
Ridzual was looking at her with a kind of glow in his eyes. It was the way her mother and father used to look at her, back when she was alive, before all the bad things had happened–as if she was something special. Something precious. Ah Lee’s ex-boyfriend had never looked at her like that.
Ridzual had always had this look, Ah Lee realised. He had always looked at her as if she was the sunrise after a long dark night.
“Oh,” said Ah Lee.
“You don’t have to not want to be my friend back,” said Ridzual.
Ah Lee hesitated. But there was a perfect way to say yes and still sound cool.
“I don’t mind,” she said.
Ridzual turned his face away, but he was too slow. Ah Lee already knew he was beaming. She reached out and took his hand, encountering less trouble than he had done.
“OK,” said Ridzual. “That works.”
They smiled stupidly for a while, shedding radiance on the slide and sandbox, showering incidental romance on the speed-walking uncle and auntie.
“Only one thing,” said Ah Lee.
“Oh, there’s something else on top of the vampire mak cik and the human pig stomach soup?” said Ridzual. “What more is there? I have to fight a werewolf first before I can date you, is it?”
“No lah, there’s no such thing as werewolf,” said Ah Lee. “It’s a small thing only. But–‘vampire’ is OK. The other word, please don’t use. Is that OK?”
“Why?” said Ridzual.
“It’s not such a nice word,” said Ah Lee.
“OK,” said Ridzual. “OK.”
Then he said, “Can I use it one last time?”
Ah Lee nodded. She knew what was coming.
“Will you tell me how you became a pontianak?”
Sitting there with him in the park, Ah Lee told him. She had not told anyone else the story before. He didn’t let go of her hand.
Her grandmother watched her being born. Her grandmother watched her die.
Who died of childbirth in the twenty-first century? It didn’t happen, not if you were middle class in Malaysia, not if you’d followed the rules and paid attention at school and listened to your parents.
Not if you’d been a good girl.
By the time her parents had suspected, it hadn’t been too late. That was the thing. The worst thing–worse than being dumped by the boy who’d given her the baby, though that had felt terrible when it’d happened.
But it was nowhere near as bad as her parents’ carefully expressionless faces, as they had gone from day to day pretending nothing was happening. The day she fainted because she’d thrown up all her breakfast and had hidden in her room and refused to eat–they hadn’t said anything. When she choked on her food because things tasted different now she was pregnant, they didn’t say anything. She stopped going to school. Her parents stopped talking to her. Her world contracted.
It was like being invisible. It was as if she had died and no one had noticed.
Months of it, months of feeling sad and ashamed, but now that it had become serious enough that even her parents could not ignore it, now that she was in the hospital and somebody was looking after her, Ah Lee did not feel free, or relieved.
She felt angry. She resented her parents wildly for breaking their promise that they would protect her, for failing to love her no matter what.
And still she was sorry that the secret had to come out–the baby had to come out–and they would lose face. She wished she could be dying in some less embarrassing way. She could have drowned in a monsoon drain. She could have been run over by a car.
She felt bad for them. But she wished they would stop hanging over her bed and crying.
“I’m sorry, girl. Mummy’s so sorry, girl.”
Sorry no cure, Ah Lee wanted to say.
After a while it stopped. Somebody took her parents away. Ah Lee regretted her silent fury. She missed them. Somebody was doing something pointless down there. She was bleeding.
When she died someone was holding her hand. Not a mother or a father, with their enormous burden of expectation. Someone calmer, their hands softer, wrinklier-skinned. At the very last moment Ah Lee opened her eyes and saw her grandmother, waiting for her.
The scent of frangipani–the stench of decay–revenge a red flame at the heart–
Her hair whipped against her face, smelling of the mulch in a graveyard. Her nails were long and yellow. Her body was free. She got up on the bed and nothing hurt.
She had lost all sense of the disgusting. She had bled so much that she would never flinch from blood again. She was made for tearing out kidneys, feasting on livers, pulling out strings of intestines. It would never again be her own blood that was spilt, her insides that were pulled inside out.
She flew down the corridors of the hospital and there was no pain, or everything was pain, but it spun outwards, knocking people over, ripping heads off. Blood sprayed on the walls. People were screaming.
Someone grabbed the wrists of the hurricane. Someone slapped the face of the typhoon.
“Enough! Stop now!” The voice was as familiar to her as her mother’s. She would have killed anyone else, but the voice brought her down.
“Angry already, har,” said the voice.
“Just because you’re angry doesn’t mean everybody else must suffer,” scolded another voice.
Blood was rolling down from her eyes. She blinked, but her eyes stung. The world was a smear. She couldn’t see a thing.
“Quieting down already.”
“Can listen now.”
“Can see now.”
“Close your eyes, Ah Lee.”
“Close your eyes, girl.”
Someone brushed a damp cloth over her eyelids. When she opened her eyes, she saw who it was.
“No need to cry,” said Ah Ma. “No need for all this. Come, we are going somewhere else. Then you can lie down, rest first. You’ll feel nicer after that.”
“Where are we going?” said Ah Lee. Her voice came out in a hoarse whisper, scraping her throat. It was sore from the screaming. “Where’s Mummy and Daddy?”
“Mummy and Daddy have to look after your brothers and sister,” said an old lady in a baju kebaya. Ah Lee had never seen her before, but she leant her head trustingly against the old lady’s chest when the old lady picked her up.
She felt as tired as if she had just been born.
“What about the baby?” she whispered.
“The baby’s gone,” said Ah Chor. It was the first time they met. “Don’t worry. We’ll look after you now.”
“Ji Ee?” said Ah Lee blearily, as her eyes began to pick out familiar faces. “Tua Kim? Aunty Girl?”
“I don’t have children,” said Ji Ee.
“My children are all grown up,” said Tua Kim.
“How to let you go alone?” said Aunty Girl. “Now you don’t need to worry. We’ll be with you.”
There was something to tell them.
“Ah Ma,” said Ah Lee.
Shame washed over her. It had been bad enough with her parents. How could you tell your grandmother something like this?
“The baby,” she said. “The father. I didn’t purposely–at the start, I wasn’t thinking about all that. I just liked him. We were dating, and it just happened. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t know what to do. I was scared to tell anybody. And then, Mummy and Daddy–“
She didn’t know what to say about that worst betrayal. She still felt sorry. She had not had the chance to apologise, to explain.
“Can you tell them?” she said. “Tell them it was an accident. I didn’t purposely–I just didn’t think. I didn’t think this would happen. Tell them I’m sorry.”
They were walking down the hospital corridor. Ah Chor cradled Ah Lee to her chest, stepping over the bodies.
“Ah Ma already said there’s no need to cry,” said Ah Ma. “It’s not your fault. Your Mummy and Daddy should have looked after you. Ah Ma tried to teach your Mummy to bring up her children right, but there’s no need to be so strict. You are her daughter, whether you are good or naughty. Ah Ma should have explained.”
“We all should be saying sorry,” said Sa Ee Poh. She didn’t mean just the aunts. “You are only a child.”
“Never mind. It’s over already,” said Ah Chor. “Don’t worry about it anymore.”
When they had reached the stairwell at the end of the corridor, Ah Lee was already half-asleep. When they smashed through the glass and jumped out the window, seven floors up, she was sleeping. She didn’t feel the night wind on her skin, or see the starlight on the aunts’ faces.
When she woke up she was a new person. She was dead, but she wasn’t alone. There was nothing to be scared of in this new life. With six aunts behind you, you can be anything.
Copyright Zen Cho 2011