Gold Coast Speckies interview Malaysian author Fadzlishah Johanabas:
I am a Malay, raised in multicultural Malaysia, and a Muslim. Not necessarily a model Muslim, but still. When I was in secondary school and in university, I thought that writing English stories featuring local people and setting didn’t seem right, so I wrote about Caucasians in their vaguely Caucasian world, courtesy of TV series and movies.
When I finally gave up that internal argument, I found my voice. In a way, the adage “write what you know” is spot-on. I know Malaysia. I know its settings and cultures and racial dynamics. I know its myths and legends. I know Islamic values and teachings. I used to have a writing group at Writing.com, and they loved the exoticism of my stories, which, to me, was inherently local.
As I mentioned earlier, I’m a Muslim, and most of my characters are Muslims as well, as evident in “Act of Faith”. I’ve gotten mixed reactions for it. Other Muslim people across the globe are happy that a brighter facet of Islam is portrayed, while there are people who complain that I’m trying to preach and spread my Islamic ways.
I’m not. Christianity is deep within the pages and reels of fiction, but people don’t even blink twice. The crucifix, the invocation of Christ, the Christian ways of defeating vampires and other monsters. People don’t really think about the subtle messages of Christianity because they’ve always been there. When someone else from another culture and another religion uses what he knows, he sometimes gets a sound lashing. – read the full interview.
Fadz can be found occasionally updating his blog (http://www.fadzjohanabas.com), sharing random thoughts on Twitter (Fadz_Johanabas), and lurking around on Google+ (still getting acquainted with it).
Flight of the Ibis
“Master, I am afraid.”
Issa kept his eyes trained on the curved ceremonial dagger resting on a bed of rare white silk. Even in the dim slivers of light whispering through the stone grills on the ceiling, the ebony dagger made from star metal gleamed, as if glowing with an inner light of its own. Clear, crystalline veins ran along its length, glittering like the Red Sea at midday.
“Only the bravest of men could say what you have said.” The High Priest of Amun kept a respectful distance behind Issa, but his soft voice carried clear and pure in the high-ceilinged Hypostyle Hall. “What you have been committed to is a rare and great honor, child.”
Issa sighed, his shoulders slumped. “The honor, the burden, is too great for me to bear. This was supposed to be my brother’s destiny, not mine.”
“And who are you to question the wisdom of the Gods?”
Issa turned to face the High Priest. The tall, austere man’s forehead was creased with stern lines. Standing this close, he looked more imposing in his leopard skin cloak, his shaved and oiled head gleaming.
“Forgive me, Master. I did not mean to be impudent.”
Issa expected to be chastised, but he did not expect to hear the chuckle escaping the High Priest’s lips.
“There is nothing to forgive, child. The Gods’ works are beyond our understanding. Have faith that they have chosen you for a reason.”
“I am just a scribe.”
“Just a scribe? You sound ashamed when you should be proud. I have seen you in the Hall of Records late at night, translating ancient scripts for others to print. Your work is exemplary. You are not just a scribe.”
For a brief moment, Issa’s chest rose with pride. To his knowledge, the High Priest never praised anyone. Then he looked at his right arm, dangling shriveled and useless like a dry branch. When he looked up, he knew the High Priest noticed where his eyes had lingered.
“You have survived, you have prospered all your life without the use of your right arm. Do not think yourself unworthy in the eyes of the Gods. They have chosen you, child.”
Issa nodded and kept his eyes on the floor between them, humbled by the High Priest’s words. He still had doubts, but he did not wish to shame himself further in front of his revered Master.
“Come, child. There is something you need to see.”
The High Priest walked past Issa to the back of the great hall. Issa followed quietly, and stopped to face the wall that was filled from ceiling to floor with hieroglyphic murals recording the history of Mother Kemet and the city of Waset from its founding. He watched as the High Priest disappeared into the darkness and reappeared in another pool of light near the eastern end of the wall.
“Here,” he said. “Read this.”
Having spent years as a temple scribe, Issa knew the murals decorating the back wall by heart. The High Priest was standing before the section that depicted the arrival of the Aether, encompassing the Heavens over a thousand years ago during the construction of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Along with the Aether, the Gods had returned and raised their children out of darkness and ignorance. The High Priest pointed at a picture of an ibis, the representation of the great vessel lying dormant just outside the walls of Ipet-Sut. Beside it was an empty space the length of two hands.
“Your place, child, is here on this wall. This empty space will be adorned with the record of your sacrifice. Not even I am worthy of that honor.”
Issa felt his breath catch. Never in his life had he dreamed of being remembered by people other than his parents. He felt his shoulders weighted down by an oppressive weight. This was not what he wanted.
“The eclipse will not take place for another three days,” the High Priest added, not taking his eyes off the wall. “Go home. Make peace with your family, with yourself.”
“What if I do not come back?”
“I have faith in you even though you lack faith in yourself.”
* * *
The ship Issa boarded docked just before the branching of the Nile at the Delta, where the wide waters churned yellow with mud. Issa could see barges of varying sizes transporting trade goods and foodstuffs down- and upriver. After his father had sent him to Ipet-Sut at the heart of Waset at the age of six, Issa managed to visit his home in Lower Kemet three, at most five times a year. Even so, not much had changed in the past fifteen years. The smell of dried fish hung heavy in the humid air, burying deep into his nostrils. Flies abounded, flying between people and wares. Issa took off his white linen headdress and swatted the insects that buzzed too close.
The sandals he wore did not help much in preventing mud from soaking his feet. Issa sloshed and shouldered his way through the throng of folks congregating around the dock. Men and women alike haggled for wares at the top of their lungs, from wheat and other grains, to clothing and jewelry, and to the finer barley beers of Upper Kemet. The fineries here were crude compared to those made by master craftsmen of Waset; people of the Delta would never be able to afford such jewelry. The market scene was both familiar and alien to Issa at the same time.
More than once he had to nudge and force his way through the crowd. More than once he had to avert his gaze from people who openly stared and pointed at his shriveled right arm. Likely they were jeering at him, calling him a living mummy, a name he had earned among the scribes and temple workers. Had he slung his palette over his shoulder as tradition dictated, common folk would show him more respect. But soon enough Issa would be the center of the whole of Kemet’s attention. He needed this anonymity. Nevertheless, some of them noticed the fine quality of his linen tunic, for they lowered their eyes and made way for him to pass by.
Just before he left the market, Issa saw a poster made of papyrus paper nailed onto a board. The black ink print showed an illustration of the great vessel back in Waset, and below it was news of the ritual that would take place during the eclipse. Not many people of the Delta knew how to read, but Issa was thankful his name had not been mentioned. He stared at the illustration for a while before continuing his walk home.
By the time Issa’s house was within his sight, the sun was well into its descent toward the western horizon. His mud-caked legs ached, and his mouth and throat were parched from the sweltering heat. The square single storey mud-brick hut was just as he remembered. His father’s fishing net was splayed on a rope tied between two stunted mangrove trees, signaling that he was home. The old net was well-maintained, obvious even from afar. Salted fish lay on the ground near the net. Issa could not help but wonder if his parents’ life would go on as usual like this when he was no longer around. Issa pushed the thought away and strode home.
He hesitated in front of the crude door made of planks. He heard his parents conversing with each other, but the words were too muffled for him to make out. He settled with just listening to the tone and sound of their voices.
“Mother,” Issa finally called out when he could no longer bear standing in silence. “Father?”
His mother pulled opened the door and rushed out to wrap him in a tight embrace. She stood on tiptoes for she was almost a full head shorter than him, but that did not make her grip any less strong. Issa breathed in her comforting scent of earth and salted fish.
“I had hoped you would come back to see us. The Gods have answered my prayers.” She held his arms and studied him. “You haven’t been eating well. What do they feed you there? You’re all bones!”
He in turn studied her. The fine linen tunic he had brought home for her was stained and yellowed with use. He should have stopped by the marketplace in Waset to buy more for her. She wore no finery, and her shoulder-length hair had more white than he remembered. Her olive skin was tanned brown where his was much fairer from spending all those years indoors. Her fingers were rough and calloused, and Issa felt a pang of guilt; his left hand, though permanently stained with layers of ink, was soft as a babe’s skin.
“You look no better off yourself,” Issa replied with a smile.
“Come, make yourself comfortable. I am preparing dinner.”
Issa followed his mother into the small hut and saw his father sitting by the window, repairing his second net. Age was catching up to him, but he was still the strong, broad-shouldered man Issa remembered. His father stopped mending the net and bored straight into Issa’s eyes.
“What are you doing here? You are supposed to be at the temple for the ritual.”
“The High Priest sent me home. I have time.”
His father grunted and continued mending his net. Issa settled down on his own rickety bed and burned into his memory the familiarity of his home: the scents of fish and stew being cooked, his mother humming an old lullaby in the kitchen, the swishing sound of shuffling net, the soft heat emanating from the ochre walls, warmed by the sun, and the cool floor at his feet. Outside, the riverbank was teeming with life. The calls of ibises and geese lulled Issa into closing his heavy lids.
When his mother woke him up, the sun was setting, bathing the land with an orange glow. Dinner was served on the uneven surface of the wooden table, illuminated by the single oil lamp in the hut. Issa stretched and yawned as his mother retreated to put food into clay bowls. The three of them ate in silence until midway, when his father spoke up.
“You are going back to Waset in the morning?”
Issa played with his food, weighing his answer. He looked at each of his parents’ faces in turn. “I do not want to go back there.”
The initial silence was deafening. When his father spoke again, his voice was soft and even, the growl of a leopard ready to pounce. “Are you out of your mind? Do you wish to shame our family?”
“I do not wish for anything, Father. This fate is not mine. Akil was supposed to be the one.”
“Your brother is dead!” His father’s fist slammed onto the table, toppling his bowl with a loud clang, spilling stew and bread on the floor.
“And I wish to live.”
Issa heard his mother catch her breath and felt her holding his knee. This was breaking her heart, he knew, but surely they understood his predicament?
“What do you plan to do then?” He pointed at Issa’s right arm. “You’re useless as a fisherman.”
Issa registered the disgusted look in his father’s face before he stormed out of the hut. They had never been close. Akil was the one who had been close to his father’s heart. Akil was learning to be a fisherman just like his father, as was tradition with firstborn sons, before he was enlisted into the army. Akil looked handsome and majestic driving a chariot. He was deadly with a bow. The Vizier himself had taken personal interest in Akil’s meteoric rise in ranks, and approached him not long ago with an offer of a lifetime. Akil had agreed, committing his family with this great honor.
That was before they carried him back home from a skirmish with an arrow shaft protruding from his chest.
Issa was never close with his father, but he had never looked at Issa with open disgust and hostility either. He turned to his mother for support, but he could only see the tears welling in her eyes.
* * *
Issa sat on a stump by the riverbank. He watched the ibises scattered across the marshy shallows, their pristine white feathers making them look like a layer of cloud had settled on the surface of the river. Their stilt-like legs made tiny ripples on the otherwise calm waters, and their discordant warbles broke the stillness of the air. Issa ignored the mosquitoes, only once in a while scratching his neck or legs. At night, the riverbank looked even more beautiful, and the Nile gave off an ethereal bluish-green glow, reflecting the Aether that spread across the Heavens.
It was never truly dark, not even in the deepest of night. Issa craned his neck and studied the sky. The moon hung low in the heavens, a pale round eye that watched over the world in silence. Beyond and around it were the majestic clouds of Aether, nebulous masses of blue and green and orange, and every shades in between. The Aether had always been a mystery to the brightest of scholars, appearing one night and bringing gradual enlightenment. Showers of rock and metal that fell from the Aether teemed with beautiful, unfamiliar plant life. Scholars knew there was more to the Aether than they currently knew, possibly more complex life as well, perhaps the dwelling of the Gods themselves, but it was always beyond the reach of humans.
Issa tried not to think about what he should be facing instead of cowering here at home. In some of the ancient papyrus scrolls he transcribed, the heavens at night had been said to be black velvet, littered with cold, distant points of light called stars and constellations. Issa tried to imagine a dark, empty sky, but couldn’t. The ever-shifting clouds of Aether were so beautiful, so divine. A small part of him was curious about the Aether and what lay beyond it. But a bigger, dominant part of him was deeply rooted in the harsh lands of Mother Kemet, and among the scrolls in the sacred Hall of Records.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?”
Issa’s mother stood beside him with a woolen shawl slung across her shoulders. Issa leaned against her and felt her trace the contours of his face.
“I miss Akil.” Issa held an unspoken jealousy toward his elder brother for his charm and strength, but most of all for his wholeness, for his ability to use both arms. He still did, even though his elder brother had passed away. But he loved Akil, and missed him dearly.
“As do I,” his mother replied. “A mother is not meant to outlive her children.”
“Is he still angry?”
“Your father is grieving over one son, and now he has to start grieving for the only one he has left.”
“He hates me, doesn’t he?”
Issa’s mother let out a long sigh and sat next to him. “Angry, yes. But your father can never hate you.”
“You saw his face. There was nothing but contempt.”
Issa’s mother took his atrophied right hand in hers. “When you were born, the midwives found your birthing cord wrapped around your arm. They knew it was dead, and they thought you were better off left in the wilds, as it would be kinder for you and for us.”
Issa felt himself stiffen. He had never heard this tale before. “Why didn’t you?” he whispered.
“I was weak and only half awake. It was your father who stayed their hands. He said you were a blessing from the gods.”
Issa choked back his tears. His father had said those words.
“And he is right. You are a blessing. Your father sent you to the Temple of Light to learn to read and write, not because of your arm, but because you were quick to learn everything. He knew you were meant for great heights.”
“I do not wish to die.”
“None of us do. It pains me to think you will no longer come and visit. I am happy you came back.”
“You made my favorite dishes.”
“It is the least I can do for you.”
Issa turned to see silent tears flowing freely from his mother’s eyes, glittering like precious diamonds from the southern lands. She was looking at the heavens, and her shoulders were straight and unmoving, but she did not try to hide her tears.
“I don’t know what to decide, Mother.”
She turned to face him then, and cupped his face in her warm hands. “Whatever it is you decide, know that you will not cause us shame. We are proud of you.” She kissed his forehead and stood up, squeezing his shoulders one last time before walking back into their hut.
Issa stayed seated on the stump long after the calls of the ibises had subsided, and the only sounds he heard were the lapping of the river on the shore, and the songs of the crickets. When he entered his home, both his parents were already asleep. He committed their peaceful forms into memory before drifting off to slumber.
When Issa woke up late in the morning, his father was nowhere to be seen, along with both his nets. His mother had prepared a simple breakfast of bread and fruits, and she sat looking at him as he ate. Issa knew he had to return to Waset no matter what he would decide. He owed the High Priest of Amun that much. Issa and his mother wept their goodbyes, and when there were no tears left to shed, she packed food for his trip upriver. She gave him another long hug before he left, and he felt his feet heavier with every step away from home.
As he reached the last hillock before the dock, Issa saw his father waiting there. Issa hesitated at first, but approached him nonetheless. They stood looking at each other for long moments, his much taller and broader father looking as imposing as the High Priest. He suddenly broke the tense stillness by embracing Issa in a fierce hug.
“I love you, son. I’m proud of you.”
Issa’s breath caught in his throat. His father had never said those words before, not to him, not to Akil. He returned his father’s embrace.
“I love you, Father.”
“The Gods watch over you.”
Throughout the trip upriver, Issa kept replaying the conversations he had with his parents. It was all that kept him from running away. When he finally reached Ipet-Sut, the whole temple grounds were abuzz with talks of a substitute. He rushed to meet the High Priest of Amun with both dread and hope warring in his head.
“Issa, I knew you’d come back.” The High Priest was smiling.
“Is it true? There is a substitute?”
“The other High Priests did not share my faith in you. They feared you would not come back, and this opportunity comes only once.”
“If I choose not to proceed? What happens then?”
The lines on the High Priest’s face deepened with his frown. He studied Issa’s face before replying. “You will continue to work as temple scribe. Your flair for the written word is much too precious to waste. But is that what you want?”
“I need time to think.”
Issa wanted to say more, but the High Priest had already turned his back. Issa felt hurt by the curt dismissal, but more than that, for the first time in months he felt a glimmer of hope.
* * *
Before he left, Issa’s mother had told him that his life was in the Gods’ hands, and that there was nothing finer a mother could ask for her son. When he stepped into the sacred lake just outside the Temple of Amun with the first rays of sunlight, Issa knew the Gods had given him a choice, that he was no longer forced to sacrifice his life because of circumstance.
Priests from each of the temples within the grounds of Ipet-Sut attended him in this ritual cleansing. They had shaven off every strand of hair from his body so that he could immerse himself into the still, pristine waters of the sacred lake and emerge anew, reborn with no sins, no wrongs. They lathered him with scented oils until his body gleamed as much as the vessel waiting between the Avenues of Ram and Sphinx. Finally they clothed him with a simple robe of finest white silk and clamped a thick belt of pure gold around his waist. Its weight made his steps heavy, but his spirit was light. He knew he had made the right choice.
The procession line was long and grand. Issa sat on a palanquin carried by ten temple guards, behind the statue of Amun carried by four guards. The priests behind him chanted an ancient prayer praising all the major Gods watching over Mother Kemet, their voices beautiful and resounding throughout Ipet-Sut.
Issa had seen the vessel since its construction, but it still took his breath away. Shaped like an arrowhead, the vessel had been forged from rocks and metals that fell from the Aether. Hieroglyphic reliefs were carved into its white outer surface. It was said that Thoth Himself had appeared in the young Pharaoh’s dream one night and inspired the god-king to gather sky rocks and metals and craft them into such a vessel that would unlock the mysteries of the Aether. Pharaoh himself had designed and overseen the completion of the vessel. He had named it Ibis, after the sacred bird of the Gods.
As he stepped off the palanquin to stand on a platform in front of the vessel, Issa noticed a detail he had never seen before. Near the narrow, pointed bow, a relief of a masculine face with closed eyes and mouth had been carved, beautiful and perfectly symmetrical. The vessel itself was large, the length of six great elephants from bow to stern, and three from wingtip to wingtip. The face was only slightly larger than a man’s, but it stood out in its fine detail.
Two young priests helped Issa shrug off his belt and robe, and he stood naked on the platform in front of the whole of Waset. Priests in their finest white linen tunics stood around the platform and vessel in a horseshoe pattern, readying themselves for the ritual. Common folk crammed against one another farther off, and Issa did not know if his parents were among them. He hoped they were safe at home. Then he saw another smaller procession making its way toward a higher-raised platform not far from where he was standing. Pharaoh Ramses himself was at the head of the procession, followed closely by his Great Wife and the Vizier. High Priests of each temple walked behind them at a respectful distance, their leopard skin cloaks billowing in the desert wind. As Pharaoh, his Vizier and his Great Wife stepped onto the pavilion, one of the High Priests broke off from the procession and walked toward Issa’s platform. It was none other than the High Priest of Amun, Issa’s master and mentor.
“I told you I have faith in you, did I not?” The High Priest awarded Issa with a warm smile.
Issa nodded at the High Priest and turned his head toward the pavilion. “He is beautiful.” He had never seen Pharaoh up close before. The god-king was a child, his bare chest oiled, golden headdress and beard rings glinting sunlight, bathing him in a halo. The boy, the god-king, was all Issa could concentrate on.
The High Priest chuckled. “He has that effect on people.” Then he cleared his throat to gain Issa’s full attention. “I will ask you this again, child. Are you ready to face your destiny?”
This time, there was no hesitation. “I am, Master.”
“May the Gods welcome you into their arms. It is time.”
Both of them looked up, and saw a small dark shadow creeping at the right edge of the great fiery orb. The eclipse had begun. The High Priest took out the ebony ceremonial dagger and laid it flat on his palms.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” The invocation of the Gods were soft at first, spoken by the male priests that surrounded Issa’s platform. Issa felt the skin at the back of his neck prickle with each name.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!” This time, melodic female voices joined in, and the chant became a song, rising in volume and intensity.
“Ptah, Hathor, Osiris, Maat, Horus, Thoth. Amun-Ra!”
The chant continued as the shadow crept further to engulf the sun. Before long, Issa could only concentrate on the resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart was beating faster; he still felt fear deep inside. He looked up at the progressing eclipse.
As the shadow completed a full circle, the last rays of the sun flared brilliantly, as if unwilling to give up its dominance. Then, true darkness. In those brief moments, Issa finally saw the black velvet sky he had read in the ancient scrolls. A fat tear rolled down his cheek. After that brief darkness, the Aether gradually reappeared, visible as it always was during the night.
Issa knelt down before the High Priest and tried his best to calm his shaking body. He knew the only part not shaking was his dead right arm. Issa chose to face his fears and searched for the calm within his soul.
“Osiris, take my soul and guide me. Amun, take me home.” His voice was barely a whisper, but he saw the High Priest smiling his approval.
Just as the High Priest repositioned the dagger and held its hilt in his right hand, a flock of ibises flew overhead, warbling their discordant song above the voices of the chanting priests. After they had passed, a single white feather floated earthward, and landed at the tip of Issa’s head.
“The Gods have spoken, child,” the High Priest said with an awed edge in his voice. “Your sacrifice has been accepted. May your journey be blessed.”
Issa heard another resounding “Amun-Ra!” His heart beat so hard his chest felt like bursting. He closed his eyes and faced heavenward.
The blade plunged deep into his chest, and his heart stopped beating altogether.
* * *
The whole congregation, including Pharaoh, held their breath as Issa’s form slumped onto the platform. With another brilliant flare, the sun returned in all its glory. The only sound heard throughout the hallowed grounds of Ipet-Sut was that of the billowing winds that carried sand and desert heat.
For long moments, nothing happened. Then, a silver glow came to life on the hieroglyphic depressions on the vessel, Ibis. The High Priest, who was the closest to the vessel, kept his eyes on the carved face on the vessel.
The eyes became slits of golden light at first, but gradually both lids opened fully and blinked like a human’s would. The mouth opened and closed, as if testing the function of the lips.
“I remember that body.” The voice that came from the mouth was raspy and metallic, but rang clear throughout temple grounds. “I remember you.”
The High Priest knew the face was talking to him. He bowed low.
“I have a name. I cannot remember.”
“You were once Issa. You are now Ibis.”
“It is a good name.”
“Your parents will be well taken care of. They will not want for anything their whole lives.”
“Thank you, Master.”
With that, Ibis gazed heavenward. A deep rumble growled at its stern, and intense white flames spewed forth. Heat emanated from the vessel as it angled upward until the arrowhead pointed straight at the heavens.
With a mighty blast, Ibis shot upward, flying toward the Aether.
Ibis surged ever forward, drawn toward a purpose delayed, but not forgotten.
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Zen Cho from Malaysia. Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her short stories have appeared in various publications including Strange Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, Steam-Powered II and Heiresses of Russ. Her work has been nominated for the Selangor Young Talent Awards and the Pushcart Prize. She blogs at http://qian.dreamwidth.org/.
Prudence and the Dragon
There was a dragon in town.
Statues all over the city climbed off their pedestals and went walking about. The Winston Churchill from Parliament Square gave an interview to the BBC, still squinting as if the wind were blowing into its eyes. The statue was appropriately witty, but did not seem to remember anything about World War II. It did, however, have a lot to say about pigeons.
Silver griffins bowled down the streets of the City, tripping up lawyers and outraging bankers, and Winged Victory on the Arch finished her yawn and dropped her arms.
The pigeons grew human bodies, all of which wore suits from Austin Reed. They marched in their thousands into architects’ firms, university admissions offices, food consultancy businesses, struggling non-profits; they stole colleagues’ lunches and strewed cubicles with green-grey feathers. Despite these minor eccentricities they made excellent workers: they had a firm grasp of commercial realities, and never went on Facebook.
For several days every Tesco in the country stocked only pomegranates, nothing else. If you ate the seeds from one of these you vanished and your soul was dispatched to Hades. There was a rash of deaths before anyone realised.
The buses of London turned into giant cats–tigers and leopards and jaguars with hollow bodies in which passengers sat. You could still use your Oyster card on them, but bus usage dropped: the seats were soft and pink and sucked at you in a disturbingly organic way when you sat down, and the buses were given to stopping in the middle of the road to quarrel with one another.
Meanwhile the dragon coiled itself around the tip of the Gherkin and brooded over the city.
Where Prudence came from, spirits were an everyday thing. You knew they were there and you acknowledged them when necessary. You set out the bunga melur for Dato Gong when you were going to build a house, asked permission of the grandfathers and grandmothers before you took a shit in the jungle. You apologised to tree stumps if you kicked them accidentally, and made sure the dead were fed well in the seventh month of the year.
In Britain, people were far too sophisticated to pray to their spirits. Instead, they wrote articles about them. The broadsheets did serious-minded comment pieces about how the dragon was a metaphor for the Labour party in exile from Whitehall. Thaumatologists were quoted explaining that the mere presence of the dragon increased atmospheric magic levels and that was why clothes in Primark were now labelled things like, “Made by enslaved goblins in Fairyland.”
The tabloids wanted to know whether the dragon was receiving benefits. The gossip magazines claimed to have found a woman who was carrying the dragon’s baby. The fashion magazines did spreads on draconic style. This apparently consisted of gaunt models with sunken eyes, swathed in clouds of chiffon and arranged in awkwardly erotic positions on piles of gold coins.
Because Prudence Ong never read newspapers or watched British TV, she maintained a spotlessly pure ignorance of the dragon throughout. She encountered the dragon in a rather more traditional setting. She met him down the pub.
Historically, it was the Sorceror Royal who performed the role of human-dragon liaison, but nobody had been appointed to that office for the past couple of centuries. So it was the mayor who had to take the dragon to the pub, even though he would have preferred to stay in his office and worry about public transport.
He took the dragon to a pub on Lamb’s Conduit Street, where the dragon would not meet anyone the mayor knew. Everyone knew what the dragon’s visit was for, and while the mayor could think of several people he would like to have removed to another dimension, a dragon seemed too blunt and indiscriminate a tool to do it with.
In his human form the dragon was a man–imperially slim, as it says in the poem, with glowing blue-black skin and startlingly pale eyes. He was wearing a heather-grey suit and shining leather shoes. He was exquisite, so much so that when he paused at the entrance to the pub, he drew a gasp from the people inside. Men gazed hungrily at him; women touched their hair.
He didn’t seem to notice the sensation he’d caused.
“It’s considered terribly gauche now to obtain a maiden without first asking her if she wants to be obtained,” he was saying to the mayor. “I assure you, the maiden’s consent is paramount.”
“That’s good to hear,” said the mayor. He was thinking about bicycle lanes.
But he roused himself as they waited at the bar for their drinks. “Of course one would never wish to discard the noble old traditions for no good reason. But it does seem likely that there would be some outcry if there was any incident of—any sort of—anything that might possibly be construed as, er, snatching, if you understand me.”
“Oh no,” said the dragon. He was gazing around the pub with interest, like an alien at the Grand Prix. It wasn’t clear whether he meant that there would be no such incident, or whether he was saying that he didn’t understand the mayor. The mayor did not get the opportunity to clarify, because just then the dragon froze like a dog that had smelt a squirrel. He was staring over the mayor’s shoulder.
The mayor followed the dragon’s gaze to a group sitting at the other end of the room. The attraction was obvious: at the table sat a young woman of dazzling beauty. She was so beautiful even the mayor felt his heart wobble in his chest. But he was a married man and still recovering from his most recent extramarital scandal. He said to the dragon:
“Shall we find a seat?”
They sat next to the girl, of course. The dragon lost no time. He leaned over to the next table. The flowerlike face turned to him.
“Excuse me,” said the dragon. “What is the name of your charming friend?”
“Who?” said the beautiful girl. “You mean Prudence?”
It was only at this point that the mayor noticed the beautiful girl’s friend. She was a small, round-faced woman. Usually, she would have been brown, but just then she was almost fluorescent pink. An empty pint glass sat in front of her.
“Yes?” said Prudence.
She was feeling cross. Alcohol did not suit her and she did not like pubs. She was only there because Pik Mun had asked. Prudence had ordered cider because she did not think it was worth paying £2 for orange juice transferred from a carton to a pint glass, but she was beginning to regret it. Twin tentacles of a headache were slithering along her temples and would soon meet in the middle of her forehead.
She looked at the men who had spoken to Pik Mun. One of them was an intimidatingly beautiful model type in a suit, and the other was a podgy white man with a sort of nose.
The nose-possessing white man blurted, “What, her?”
“Prudence,” murmured the model, as if he were tasting the word and finding it delicious. “It’s so nice to meet you. My name is Zheng Yi.”
“Oh,” said Prudence. She was puzzled. “Why are you named like that?”
“Prudence!” hissed Pik Mun. She smiled at the dragon. “Sorry, my friend’s had a little too much to drink.”
“I told you already I don’t need a whole pint,” grumbled Prudence.
“Could I have your number?” said Zheng Yi.
Prudence knew the answer to this one.
“No,” she said. “I don’t even know you.”
She turned her back on him.
On the bus on the way home, Pik Mun expostulated with her. “I can’t believe you just turn him down like that! And you were so rude to him!”
“It’s not like he’s my friend what,” said Prudence. “I don’t like strangers who think it’s OK to talk to you. If I wanted to talk to them we would be friends already.”
“He was just being friendly,” said Pik Mun. She sighed. “And he was so cute!”
The unfair thing about Pik Mun was that she was intelligent as well as stop-you-dead-in-your-tracks beautiful. She was creative and generous and lively. She danced and painted and wrote poetry and sold her knitted creations to raise funds for asylum seekers, and she had a fanclub of boys who followed her around and made her bad birthday cakes by committee.
These days she went by the name Angela, but when Prudence had first met her in Standard One, at the age of seven, her name had been Pik Mun. Most of the people who knew them found it inexplicable that Angela chose to keep Prudence around, considering that the only book Prudence read was Cheese & Onion and she thought the flamenco was a kind of bird.
But Prudence was the only one among Angela’s friends who still called her Pik Mun. Angela valued history.
She also loved Prudence and wanted her to be happy. She said, “He seem so interesting. He had a Chinese name eh, even though he was so dark skin. Aren’t you curious to find out why?”
“You know I am not really curious one,” said Prudence. She reached up and knocked one of the jaguar’s vertebrae. The jaguar coughed and started inching towards the pavement.
“You asked him if he was mixed in the pub what,” Angela pointed out.
“Hah?” said Prudence.
“You know, when you asked about his name,” said Angela.
“Oh, that,” said Prudence, but it was her stop.
“You better not regret ah,” said Angela as Prudence stepped out of the bus. “If you change your mind, remember we can always try to Google him, okay!”
So the chance to mention it to Angela passed. But Prudence wondered about it as she walked home. The reason why she had asked the model type about his name was because when she was small, she used to daydream about marrying the pirate Zheng Yi and sailing the waves as an indomitable pirate queen. Zheng Yi had remained her ideal boyfriend until she turned twelve, when she put away childish things. In Prudence’s world, childish things included boyfriends.
Angela would have found that bit of history interesting, but Prudence would probably forget to tell her the next time they saw each other. Prudence shrugged the shoulders of her mind. It was just a coincidence anyway.
On Monday morning, Prudence opened her eyes knowing something was different. Zheng Yi smiled at her.
“Good morning, Prudence,” said Zheng Yi.
Prudence screamed and leapt out of bed.
“Aaaaah!” She picked up the nearest thing to hand and threw the bottle of moisturiser at him. “Aaaaah!” She threw the alarm clock.
Zheng Yi put his hands behind his head and leaned back against the pillows. He was in a black suit with a plum-coloured shirt and silver cufflinks, but at least he’d had the manners to take his shoes off.
“Come live with me and be my love,” he said.
“Aaaah!” A hardcover cookery book winged its way through the air. “Get out or I’ll call the police!”
“You can’t,” said Zheng Yi. Sure enough, Prudence’s mobile phone was nowhere to be found, though she was certain she’d left it on the bedside table before going to sleep the night before. She looked around for the telephone but that had vanished as well. It had turned into a ferret and escaped out of the window during the night, but Prudence didn’t learn about this until much later.
Nothing magical had happened to the mobile phone. It was sitting in Zheng Yi’s left pocket.
“You have no reason to fear me,” said Zheng Yi. “I won’t do anything to you against your will. I’m just making you an offer.”
Prudence stopped throwing things. She glared at him suspiciously.
“What?” said Zheng Yi.
“What’s wrong with your teeth?”
Had his teeth really looked like opals? The next time Zheng Yi smiled they were normal teeth, very white against his dark skin.
“Come away with me,” said Zheng Yi. “I will show you sorcerous wonders the likes of which you have never imagined. You will learn how to put your hand into fire and grasp its beating heart. You will speak to fairies, and they will speak back if they know what’s good for them. I will teach you the secrets of the moon and the language of the stars.”
Prudence threw the hairdryer at him.
“I’m not interested in astronomy!” she snapped.
The alarm clock had dropped behind the bed, but now it started ringing.
“Oh crap,” said Prudence. She rushed out of the room.
When she came back in she was brushing her teeth. She tugged at Zheng Yi’s shoulder with one hand.
“Get up,” she said. “You can go to the living room, whatever, I don’t care. I need to change. Late for school already!”
The living room and kitchen were open plan because there was not enough space for them to be separate rooms. There were four pieces of toast in the toaster. Prudence was conscious of her duties as a host even when her guest was an importunate model with the name of a pirate.
When Prudence came back in, Zheng Yi was inspecting the stethoscope on the dining table.
“What is this?” he said.
“Don’t play with my stethoscope!” said Prudence. She picked up a sheaf of notes on the colon. “You can have toast and kaya. After that must go already. I got to go for lecture, and you can’t get out of the building without the keys. How’d you get in anyway?”
Zheng Yi gave her a long look.
“I’m a dragon,” he said. His eyes contained galaxies.
Unfortunately the comets and nebulae were wasted on Prudence. She was taking the kaya and butter out of the fridge.
“Such thing,” she scoffed. “In my country this we call stalker.”
“You are amusing,” said Zheng Yi. “Has it not occurred to you to be frightened of me at all?”
“You said I don’t need to be scared of you what,” said Prudence. “No?”
“Usually people don’t believe me when I say that,” said Zheng Yi pensively. “Humans are so narrow-minded. A little fire breathing, a few maidens here and there, and suddenly you’re not to be trusted.”
Prudence was only listening to about forty percent of what Zheng Yi was saying, which was good because Zheng Yi only meant forty percent of anything he said. She lobbed the jar of kaya at him and he caught it.
“No need to talk so much,” she said. “Spread your own kaya.”
Angela had saved a seat in the lecture theatre for Prudence. It was next to the aisle, but by the time Prudence had opened her folder and uncapped her pen, this was no longer the case. She looked up to find Zheng Yi sitting next to her.
“Oh my gosh,” whispered Angela. “He’s a medic too? He’s a bit old to be a student, right?”
Prudence had parted from Zheng Yi on her doorstep. She narrowed her eyes at him. If Zheng Yi had not been far too elegant to grin, she would have sworn that that was what he was doing.
“No,” said Zheng Yi. “We came from her flat.”
Angela’s eyes went round.
“We had a business breakfast,” said Prudence, glaring at him. “Zheng Yi is going to be my…my—”
“Everything,” said Zheng Yi.
Angela laid a hand on Prudence’s arm. She looked a little faint. “Don’t you think this is moving too fast? You only met day before yesterday!”
“Pik Mun, he’s right there. Whisper also he can hear you,” said Prudence. “Zheng Yi is just saying that he is going to be doing everything for me. He is my personal assistant.”
“Huh?” said Angela.
“Is that a yes?” said Zheng Yi.
“He’s a management consultant,” said Prudence, inventing wildly. “But he’s thinking of changing career to become doctor. We bump into each other on the street yesterday and he ask me if he can shadow me, so I said OK lor, provided he help me with stuff.”
“Like what kind of stuff?” said Angela.
“Like taking notes,” said Prudence. “You know I find it hard to concentrate on what the lecturer’s speaking when I’m writing.” She shoved a notebook and pen at Zheng Yi. “Nah. You take notes.”
She waited till the lecture had started and Angela had turned her attention elsewhere. Then she hissed, “And no, that is not a yes!”
Zheng Yi was taking notes of the lecture with surprising diligence. He paused in the middle of a sentence to turn limpid sad eyes on her.
“I ask for your sake as much as mine,” he said. “To refuse would be to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Any magician would give his left eye for what I’m offering you. Really, you’ll regret it tremendously if you say no.”
“I don’t even know what’s the question you’re asking!”
“Perhaps over time you will figure it out,” said Zheng Yi. He turned back to his notes.
“What’s that mean?” said Prudence, but Zheng Yi raised his finger to his lips.
“Shh, she’s listing the various drugs for treatment,” he said. “This is important stuff.”
He was right, which was a pity, as Prudence was not going to have any record of it. This became apparent when Zheng Yi handed her his notes.
“What’s this?” said Prudence.
“It’s the notes of the lecture you asked me to take,” said Zheng Yi.
“I can’t read this,” said Prudence. She could not even look at the symbols for long without feeling uncomfortable. The symbols seemed to writhe on the page.
“It’s written in Draconic Runes,” said Zheng Yi. “Much more interesting than any human language. Each ideogram is itself a poem on the qualities of each drug your teacher discussed, echoing the structure of each sentence, which discusses the same subject but reveals new layers of meaning and context underpinning your teacher’s every utterance, and every sentence joins together into a giant ideogram, an uber-ideogram if you will, the significance of which is, ‘I love Pru—'”
“Can’t you write in English?” said Prudence.
“No,” said Zheng Yi.
Another thing Zheng Yi could not do was take hints. He stopped sleeping on the bed after Prudence explained that this could only lead to grievous bodily harm, but he did not go away.
Fortunately, he was good at cooking. And he would have watered the tomato plants every day, except that this had two results: first, the tomatoes thrived; second, they grew faces and began to talk. Prudence asked him to stop because she didn’t like the way their eyes followed her around the flat, but after that the tomatoes stopped meeting her eyes and started weeping and begging for mercy whenever Zheng Yi came by their pot.
He was a difficult person to manage.
Also Prudence suspected that Angela was beginning to see through her ruse.
“Does he live here?” said Angela. She had come over for a cookout on Friday night, as was their tradition.
“No,” said Prudence. “Why you ask?”
Angela looked at the sofa she was sitting on. “Then why got blanket and pillow here one?”
“I like to lie down when I watch TV,” said Prudence.
“He’s not actually doing work experience, right?”
“Yes,” said Prudence. “I mean, no. I mean, he is! Why are you asking?”
Angela cast a glance towards the kitchen area, where Zheng Yi was bending over a bubbling pot of something or other. She leaned closer. “Your tomato got face! And I found this on your bathroom floor!”
She held up what looked like a chip of black marble, cut marvellously thin and translucent, with veins of gold running through it. Colours shifted on its smooth surface, as they do on an opal when you turn it this way and that in the light. Prudence was reminded of teeth.
She took it from Angela. It was less brittle than she thought it would be, bending like a thin sheet of plastic when she folded it.
“I think it’s a scale,” said Angela. “Like fish scale. I think your personal assistant is the dragon.”
Prudence gave her a blank look.
“Hah, don’t tell me you don’t even know about the dragon,” said Angela.
Prudence tried to look intelligent. It didn’t work.
“Prudence!” said Angela. “Don’t you even read the Evening Standard? Ah, don’t answer. This is what happens when you only read textbook. The dragon came to London, what, a few weeks ago? Something like that. It comes to London every one hundred, two hundred years like that. The British say it comes to choose a maiden and then it takes the maiden away to live in this other dimension where the dragons live. Forever!”
Prudence thought about this.
“What for?” she said.
“How I know?” said Angela. “Got a lot of theory but nobody knows for sure. The dragons don’t explain. People say maybe having a human helps the dragon to do its magic spells. But you don’t know, Prudence. Maybe they eat the humans.”
“Zheng Yi can’t be a dragon lah,” said Prudence. “Number one, he looks like human. Number two, he likes kaya toast. If you eat kaya toast, what for you want to eat human?”
“Then the tomatoes leh?”
“Hm,” said Prudence.
“What explanation do you have for a random guy who just shows up one day and follows you around, then?” said Angela.
“I thought maybe he’s homeless,” said Prudence.
“Prudence—” Angela dropped her hands in her lap. “OK. All that never mind. But tell me honestly, OK. Do you like him? Like, like him like him?”
“No,” said Prudence. “I don’t even like him with one like.”
“I heard that,” said Zheng Yi from the kitchen.
“Then are you just going to let him hang around?”
“How to make him go away? When I try to call police I only get the Worshipful Company of Glaziers receptionist,” said Prudence. “But never mind. I sleep with baseball bat one side, kitchen knife on the other side. And you know I do taekwondo.”
“I also heard that,” said Zheng Yi.
“Good!” said Prudence.
Angela still looked worried.
“At least you’ll tell me if you are going to another dimension, right?” she said. “You know we booked the bed-and-breakfast in Lake District already.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” said Prudence.
“I live in hope,” said Zheng Yi, coming to the table. He laid a crockpot of stew on the table.
With a supernatural effort at politeness, Angela said, “Oh, that smells delicious. What is it?”
“Potatoes, carrots, swede, some grated apple for sweetness, fairies for protein. But only non-sentient ones,” said Zheng Yi reassuringly. “Fairies are terribly good for you.”
They were also quite crunchy, and froze well.
Prudence was by nature an incurious person, but she did find herself wondering about Zheng Yi. Dragon or no dragon, having him around did not change Prudence’s life appreciably. She taught the tomatoes to sing songs so they would not get bored when she was away. She went to the hospital and for her lectures. Zheng Yi followed her around when she did not object and went about his own mysterious affairs the rest of the time.
They were grocery shopping at Sainsbury’s one day when Prudence said abruptly, “How come dragons need maidens?”
Zheng Yi paused in the act of picking up a Basics bag of Onions of Forgetting.
“So you agree that I’m a dragon?” he said.
“I didn’t say that,” said Prudence quickly.
“One keeps explaining to humans, but they never believe one,” said Zheng Yi. “It’s a very simple reason. It just gets lonely. After thousands of years alone in a cave, one longs for companionship.”
“Why don’t you hang out with the other dragons?”
“Other dragons are bastards,” said Zheng Yi. “I moved out of my mother’s cave after my mother tried to rip my guts out.”
“Granted, I had tried to steal her Tiara of Clairvoyance,” said Zheng Yi. “Bad idea. Never try to steal anything shiny from a dragon.”
“Not to say I believe you,” said Prudence. “But say you are a dragon. Why choose me for what?”
Zheng Yi stopped in the middle of the aisle to take her hand. They were standing between the pasta and the coffee. His eyes were the deepest bluey-green. Prudence had seen that colour only once before, out of a train window in Japan, speeding past mountain rivers that had taken on the colour of the dark-green pine forests around them.
Zheng Yi spoke in a low, velvety voice:
“You,” he said, “are tremendously funny.”
Prudence jerked her hand away.
“Must get some rice,” she said. “We’re running out.”
It was all fine and good when Zheng Yi was just making himself useful, but then he became a problem. The problem was, Angela fell in love with him.
Prudence was not very good at this sort of thing. She did not really understand feelings, so it puzzled her when Angela began to act funny.
Angela started having other things to do on Friday night. Friday night cookouts were not a sacred tradition; they were allowed to miss Fridays if they had stuff on. But three Fridays passed by and Angela was busy every week.
Of course they still saw each other, at lectures and lunch and so on, but she was different then as well. They would be talking naturally, laughing away as they had always done, and then Prudence would say something about the food in her freezer and Angela’s face would just change. Prudence did not need to be sensitive to notice change in a face she had known for so long, though she did not understand what it meant.
It was worst when Zheng Yi was around. Then Angela was outrageously rude to Zheng Yi, but at the same time he was the only one she had any attention for. She had no time to speak to Prudence.
Perhaps the fight was inevitable. Yet Prudence felt she might somehow have avoided it, if only she were not such a tactless person. She had not even meant what she was saying. They were in a park eating sandwiches after lectures and before clinics, and talking about babies. Angela was a great one for baby-watching.
“That’s a pretty one,” she said, waving her ciabatta at a little curly-haired brown baby. “I think I would like my baby to have curly hair.”
“Where got Chinese got curly hair?” said Prudence.
“I’ll just have to marry somebody non-Chinese lor,” said Angela. Prudence hmed.
“I don’t mind,” said Angela. “My parents are quite chilling about this kind of thing. My auntie got marry a Mat Salleh. Blue eyes, blond hair, everything.”
“Mat Salleh are OK,” said Prudence. “It’s when they’re not-Chinese not-Mat Salleh. Then you see whether your parents are chilling or not. Especially if darker skin.”
Angela made a face. “True.”
They lapsed into silence, Angela considering the merits of each passing baby, and Prudence struggling with her baguette. Despite four years in a sandwich-eating country, she had yet to master this tricky form of food. Her chicken mayonnaise was starting to drip out the other end.
“I think I will name my baby Tristram,” said Angela.
“Very posh,” said Prudence. Perhaps if she started eating from the other end? But then the chicken mayo started coming out of both ends. It was difficult to know what to do.
“Don’t you like Tristram?”
“It’s a bit hard to pronounce,” said Prudence. She caught a piece of chicken before it could make a break for it, and put it in her mouth. “And maybe the other kids will make fun.”
“What you want to name your kids?”
“I don’t want children,” said Prudence. “OK, OK, but if I have to, I wouldn’t name something like Tristram. If I have children already they will probably be bullied.”
“Because they’ll be mixed mah,” said Prudence. “Not so many people are half-reptile.” She was too much entangled in mayo-smeared disaster to observe Angela’s expression, or to notice the way she said, “Oh.”
Prudence managed to get the remainder of the baguette in her mouth and chewed, feeling relieved. Next time she would get sushi to go.
“Are you and Zheng Yi together?” said Angela in a low voice.
“Ngah? Ngro.” Prudence swallowed.
“No,” she repeated. The past five minutes replayed themselves in her head. She had not really been listening to what she had been saying. For some unaccountable reason her cheeks felt hot.
“No lah,” said Prudence. What a ridiculous thing to have said! What could have possessed her to say it? Such things did happen. You said something meaningless, for no reason, to fill the air with noise. It was just embarrassing when other people noticed it. The only thing to do was to pile more noise on top of it until it was forgotten.
“Why so curious? You’re interested, is it?” she said jokingly. “You can have him if you want. I don’t want him.”
Angela’s face closed up, like a gate clanging shut. The voice that came out of that taut pale face was like a stranger’s.
“Well, that’s a remarkably stupid thing to say,” said Angela. “Even for you. And not like you’re known for saying clever things like that.”
Prudence had never seen Angela’s face so mean. She managed to get out, “What?”
“You know I like him!” shouted Angela. “You pretend like you’re so blur but actually you just pretend because it makes things easier for you! If you’re blur then easy lah, you don’t have to see anything you don’t want to see, you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. People will accommodate you because you are so naive konon. You think it’s cute, is it? Maybe you think you’ve fooled everybody. Maybe you’ve even fooled yourself. But you don’t think you’ve fooled me.”
She stood up. In the way of Angela, she did not even have any crumbs on her lap to brush off. She looked Prudence up and down and for the first time Prudence was acutely conscious of the bits of bread and mayo stains on her jeans, of the width of her thighs, of the depressing lankness of her hair. Her hoodie did not look good on her; her face was too big. The whole world could see this.
“Just remember this,” said Angela. “I don’t need anybody’s leftovers. And I especially don’t need yours.”
She stormed off.
Prudence put her hand on her chest. To her surprise, it was still whole.
Mostly Prudence felt bewildered. She was confused enough that when Angela didn’t meet her at the station, she simply got on the train to Oxenholme by herself. It didn’t occur to her to call the B&B and cancel the room they had booked for a week.
She had made it clear to Zheng Yi that he was not to come along. She hadn’t said so in so many words, because Zheng Yi had an inconvenient way of ignoring direct orders, but he had instructions to look after the tomato plant and use up the food in the fridge.
When she looked around and saw him in the seat next to her, she was not surprised, or even annoyed. It seemed quite natural for him to be there.
Zheng Yi did not say anything. He took her hand. Prudence nodded, and turned to look out of the window at the countryside flowing past. The green fields, the little red houses in the distance, the gentle grey sky above. Angela loved this kind of scenery: “The English countryside is so romantic,” she liked to say. Prudence’s face felt numb.
Angela was not at Oxenholme station either. Perhaps she would be at the B&B. There was no harm in going. They had booked it already.
When Angela was not at the B&B, and Prudence came to the awful realisation that she was not going to come, that this was serious, that they were fighting and perhaps they would never be friends again, she turned to Zheng Yi.
“Might as well go for a walk,” she said. “Get to know the area a bit.”
She only started crying when they were safely away from the village.
If Prudence was confused, Zheng Yi was in an even worse state. He had been looking at Prudence the whole time with the expression of a dog who does not understand why you won’t play fetch with it. This expression intensified with Prudence’s tears, with an added dimension of panic. Now he looked like a dog who is worried that you might be thinking of throwing the stick away altogether.
“What are you doing?” he said.
“Seventeen years!” said Prudence. “We were friends for seventeen years. That’s how old some people are! Some people have only lived seventeen years!”
“I don’t understand,” said Zheng Yi.
“I’m never not friends with Pik Mun before,” wailed Prudence. “Why…why…why she doesn’t like me any more?”
“What is that coming out of your eyes?” said Zheng Yi. He looked closer. “And your nose?”
“What?” said Prudence. She touched her face and her hands came away wet, but they were not any alarming colour. “It’s water. I’m crying, you doink! You’ve never seen tears before?”
She had not meant it seriously, but for the first time since Prudence had met him, Zheng Yi looked shy.
“Never,” he said. “I’ve never actually had a human. You’re my first.”
“This dragon bullshit again!” Prudence rounded on him. “Can you stop talking nonsense? Pik Mun doesn’t want to friend me any more and you can still talk cock like this!”
“I am a dragon,” said Zheng Yi. “You know that.”
“I don’t know anything!” snapped Prudence. She turned and made to stomp away. However, she had not been looking where she was going for quite some time. She found herself stomping right into a river.
It was too late to stop by the time she realised. The ground was muddy and treacherous—it had just rained. She slid down the bank and the water came up and hugged her close. It was freezing cold, and the force of it swept her along with the course of the river with dizzying speed. She pushed both her arms straight out and kicked.
Don’t panic, she thought. Must stay calm. Swimming couldn’t be that hard, you just kept moving and somehow that made it so you didn’t sink—but she was sinking. And she couldn’t breathe. Everything was a white swirl, and the roaring in her ears made it difficult to think. She was drowning—she had to stop drowning—
Stay still, said Zheng Yi’s voice. She heard it as if he was speaking directly into her ear. Stop fighting me. You’re safe.
The water trembled with the words.
Everything came together, the disparate elements of air and water and sound reconfiguring themselves into a logical pattern. The river turned from chaos into one long smooth curve, and Prudence was locked safely in its heart. She was not being battered any more, not being flung about by the untamed force of the river. She was inside the river. The river was the dragon. She was sitting on a fixed place and she was moving, but in the way that you are moving when you sit in a plane—there is the forward motion of something larger than you that you scarcely feel.
She put out her hand and touched river water, cold as winter. She put out her hand and touched warm pulsing flesh. She was sitting in the dragon’s mouth. She could see daylight through the gaps between his teeth. Magic clogged her nose and tingled on her skin.
The river and the dragon spat her out on the bank, and when the river receded it left the dragon. Prudence saw through bleary eyes a long, gleaming black creature like an overgrown gecko. When she blinked Zheng Yi was human-shaped again.
“You see?” said Zheng Yi, looking smugger than anything that isn’t a cat should be able to look.
“Can’t see anything,” Prudence managed to croak, before a fit of coughing overtook her.
“I am a dragon,” said Zheng Yi superfluously. “Now will you come away with me?”
Zheng Yi helped Prudence sit up, but there was still a pressure in her chest. She pressed her hand against her chest to relieve it. The wail burst out of her startled throat.
“Shut up! I say no means no already! You don’t know how to listen meh? Go away!”
“What?” said Zheng Yi, but Prudence was sobbing.
“You shouldn’t make fun of people,” she hiccupped. “You shouldn’t invite people when you don’t want them to come.”
“What’s this?” said Zheng Yi. His voice had gone all soft. Prudence felt embarrassed and hid her face, but she was soaking wet and it wasn’t all that pleasant. She looked for somewhere else to hide her face and found a convenient expanse of warm fabric right next to her. Unfortunately, this turned out to be Zheng Yi’s shoulder, and dragon or not, he understood enough about human norms to take this as an indication that he should put his arms around her.
“I want you to come,” said Zheng Yi. “Why would I ask you if not? Why would I go to all this trouble?”
“Don’t simply hug people,” grumbled Prudence, but only half-heartedly. It was difficult to tell someone not to hug you when you were busy wiping your nose on their sleeve.
“Why wouldn’t I want you?” said Zheng Yi.
“You always laugh at me,” said Prudence.
“When do I ever laugh at you?”
“You said I’m amusing!” said Prudence.
“Oh, that. You are,” said Zheng Yi. “Terribly.”
This was the most he would ever say. As dragons go Zheng Yi was actually quite good at feelings that weren’t goldlust, but he would never understand that he had to explain that when you are a dragon, and thousands of years old, most things become boring. The most wonderful thing anything can be is amusing. It was his way of telling her that he was madly in love with her.
“I bet you don’t think I’m pretty,” said Prudence, who was in a mood for self-pity.
“Oh no,” Zheng Yi agreed.
“I don’t even know why you want me to go with you then,” said Prudence.
Zheng Yi seemed puzzled. “But I’ve told you so many times.”
“Anyway,” said Prudence. “We can’t go anywhere. I haven’t finish med school yet. And after that I still want to get a job and work a few years in UK first.”
“I don’t mind staying in your dimension for a few years,” Zheng Yi conceded. “Not more than a thousand or so, mind. I’d want to get back to the cave after a couple of millennia.”
“Hah!” said Prudence. “I’ll be dead by then lah. Don’t you know anything about humans?” She stretched within the confines of Zheng Yi’s arms, and noticed something.
“I’m not wet,” she remarked. Even her canvas trainers were dry. Even her socks. The tips of her fingers were warm.
“Don’t you know anything about dragons?” said Zheng Yi.
Well, it was like having any other kind of roommate. Zheng Yi looked human most of the time anyway.
“What about the time the dragon was seen drinking up half the Serpentine and the Daily Mail said he should be deported back to where he came from?” said Angela.
“He was hungover! I made beef stew and you know I don’t drink. So he had to drink up the rest of the red wine,” said Prudence. “Anyway, the Daily Mail says that about everybody.”
“True,” said Angela.
It was a relief to have made up with Angela. It turned out that the falling out, like everything else, was really Zheng Yi’s fault. A few days after they had come back from the Lake District, Angela had come to visit. She brought pandan-flavoured cupcakes with gula melaka icing that she’d made, and they talked as if nothing had happened, until Angela said suddenly,
“I don’t even like him. He’s not even my type. I don’t know what happened.”
“Oh,” said Prudence, in a voice full of cupcake.
“No, that’s a lie,” said Angela. “I think I know what happened. It’s not a good excuse, though.”
“It’s OK, we don’t have to talk about it,” she said quickly. She did not want to talk about feelings. To have Angela back and pretend that nothing had happened was her idea of an ideal happy ending.
“I think,” said Angela, “it’s because he was glamouring super hard. I really never felt like that before. It was like when he was around I couldn’t think. And then when you all went away, it was like a cloud went away. Suddenly I could see clearly again.”
“You think it was magic?” said Prudence.
“Oh, I wouldn’t accuse your boyfriend just based on what I think,” said Angela. “I went to a thaumaturge and she confirmed my magic levels were super high. I don’t have any talent myself so she say probably I kena secondary glamour.”
“But why would Zheng Yi want to glamour you?” said Prudence. Angela thwapped her on the back of the head.
“You never listen. I got secondary glamour. It was a side-effect of hanging out with you. He was glamouring to impress you lah. Did it work?”
Prudence tilted her head from side to side. Her thoughts shot around and bumped into each other inside her skull, as lively as ever.
“I think I can think. Don’t feel like there’s any cloud,” said Prudence. “But Pik Mun, sorry. What did you call Zheng Yi?”
“What?” said Angela. “‘Your boyfriend,’ is it?”
“Oh,” said Prudence. So that’s what it was.
First published in Crossed Genres Quarterly #1 (February 2011)
Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer living in London. Her fiction has been featured or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, GigaNotoSaurus, PodCastle, Fantastique Unfettered, Steam-Powered II and year’s best lesbian speculative fiction anthology Heiresses of Russ. She is a Selangor Young Talent Awards finalist and was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
On tomorrow’s World SF Blog we will be featuring a story from the author.
Hi! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first get into speculative fiction?
Thanks for interviewing me!
I always knew I wanted to write speculative fiction. A lot of the books I’d grown up reading and loved most were fantasy or science fiction and I enjoyed the escapist aspect. As I’ve grown older I’ve also come to appreciate the tools sff gives you for throwing fresh light on familiar situations and “real life” problems or ideas.
I suppose what appeals to me most, and what I seek in sff, is strangeness.
How would you describe your writing?
Malaysian fantasy. In terms of style, I like what P. G. Wodehouse says about there being two ways to write novels: “One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn …” My stories are probably more on the musical comedy side.
How did you first get acquainted with the genre?
It was what was on the shelves when I was a kid hungry for books. The books I steeped my brain in and took inspiration from were mostly British fantasy — Edith Nesbit, C. S. Lewis, Tolkien — but I read a few of the usual American sff authors as well, Asimov and McCaffrey and the like.
Could you elaborate more on Malaysian fantasy? Does it mean Malaysia as a setting, or Malaysian characters, or some other quality? (We’re also wrestling with this question when it comes to Philippine speculative fiction.)
In practice nearly all the stories I’ve written for publication either take place in Malaysia or feature Malaysian characters, so that’s not a question I’ve really exercised myself over! I think it’s possible for a story to have a distinctively Malaysian sensibility or Malaysian qualities without taking place in Malaysia or featuring avowedly Malaysian characters, but it would probably take more than its being written by a Malaysian author for it to qualify as “Malaysian fantasy” in my eyes.
What made you decide to write with the short story format?
It took me a while to figure out how to write anything longer, so I started with short stories. I’ve been working on longer projects, actually, but I’ve found the short story both a good training ground and a rewarding format in its own right. I like how condensed it is.
You mentioned some British and American authors. Are there any Malaysian authors – not necessarily genre – that you’ve read?
Yes, but not nearly so many as British and American authors. Most of the better-known Malaysian authors who write in English write literary fiction, which doesn’t appeal to me as much as genre. (I read for excitement, and tend to find dragons and comedies of manners more exciting than the emotional issues of middle-aged dudes ….) The best known Malaysian author I like is probably Shamini Flint, who writes fun detective novels. For non-fiction I’m a big fan of Shanon Shah, who writes a couple of columns for the Nut Graph, a Malaysian news site, and historian Farish Noor.
Has living in London affected the way you write (and if so, how?)?
In the sense that any life experience affects one’s writing, certainly. It’s made me think a lot more about diaspora and issues of identity — what makes me Chinese or Malaysian when I live in Britain? Living as a member of a small minority has also given me an interest in communities that exist on the margins of the mainstream, both nowadays and in history. London is a particularly good place for learning about whose stories get recorded in textbooks and literature, and whose stories are forgotten. People often think of Britain as being historically a racially homogenous country and that may be true for many parts of it, but London has been multiracial for hundreds of years. Of course, every country and every city has its hidden histories, but the advantage of living in London is that its histories are very well recorded and easily accessible.
What books are you currently reading?
I’m currently absorbed in Eileen Chang’s The Book of Change, which is the second of two semi-autobiographical books written by Chang in English, chronicling her student days in Hong Kong during the war. I admire Chang a lot, though I could never write like her (and I’ve tried!). Her family makes Amy Tan’s mothers look like pussy cats.
I’ve also just finished Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, which is very entertaining pop linguistics about how language influences how we think. The curse of having a Kindle means I have several books on the go at once — the sff ones I’m currently reading are The Broken Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin and Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m plugging away at a YA urban fantasy novel set in Kuala Lumpur which contains every id-pleasing trope I can think of — the more over-the-top the better — without bringing in vampires or werewolves. It’s taking up most of my energy at the moment so that’s about it.
In part 1 of our retrospective on World SF Literature published in 2011, we have K.S. Augustin who does a recap for Poland:
Overview of recent Polish science-fiction
Genre fiction continues to make inroads into what Western readers would consider to be “literature”. Recall Jacek Dukaj’s winning of the European Literary Award for “Lód” (Ice) in 2009. If Dukaj hasn’t won another such award since then, it’s only because he hasn’t produced another epic along the same lines, his latest release (2011) being a short story collection called “Król Bólu”(King of Pain). I’m admittedly being a bit disingenuous here, because “Król Bólu” received the Polish 2011 SFinks (Sphinx) Award.
While Dukaj is published by the prestigious Wydawnictwo Literackie (Literary Publishing House), the intersection of literature with genre is also being produced by publisher Fabryka Słów (Word Factory), another imprint to look out for on the Polish bookshelves. Fabryka Słów continues to publish Andrzej Pilipiuk, whose latest release “Aparatus” (2011) is a short story anthology combining fantasy and horror elements and centering around an alternate history set in the first half of the twentieth century and based in a universe of his own making. This continues a trend that appears to have dominated Polish fiction for the past decade and points to a sustained reading audience for reworkings of Poland’s past.
While Pilipiuk mines the past two centuries for new takes and tropes in fiction, Dariusz Domagalski is an author who prefers to set his occult historical fantasy series in the fifteenth century, at a time that pitted Poles and Lithuanians against the Germanic Crusaders. His 2011 release, “I niechaj cisza wznieci wojne” (Let the silence ignite the war), is the fourth in this series.
If the boys seem to be focused on fantasy, it falls to the women to take a harder focus in genre. The best known of Polish female genre writers is Maja Lidia Kossakowska, whose 2011 release, “Grillbar Galaktyka”(Galactic Grillbar) is a gonzo sf murder mystery that, as the name suggests, roams the entire galaxy in both expanse and time. And, stepping ahead slightly, Magdalena Kozak has a 2012 release to look out for – “Nikt” (Nobody) – continuing her series that combines the military with paranormal elements.
In general, however, the last decade of Polish genre fiction is, and continues to be, dominated by fantasy and fantasy mash-ups (i.e. fantasy + horror, fantasy + history, etc.). We have yet to see another Stanisław Lem emerge, with his clean – one might say almost clinical – approach to fiction, and preference to set his stories far into the future where there could be no historical ambiguities dogging the narrative.
(For people with nostalgia for pure Polish science-fiction, they may like to hunt down a copy of “Świat na krawędzi” (Word on the Edge, 2000), a series of interviews Tomasz Fiałkowski held with Lem regarding Lem’s past, views and his predictions for the future. One thing Western readers may not know, is that Lem was as much a visionary as Arthur C Clarke, hobbled by a lack of timely translations from his native Polish.)
In summary, for 2011, historical fantasy remained the name of the game and will continue to do so, unless the women start moving into overdrive. Here’s hoping.
* KS “Kaz” Augustin is a Malaysian-based writer of mostly space opera. Her website is at http://www.ksaugustin.com She also writes a south-east Asian-based urban fantasy series under the pen-name Cara d’Bastian (http://www.CheckYourLuckAgency.com).
SF Signal have released the table of contents for upcoming anthology Heiresses of Russ, “a new annual anthology created in honor of Joanna Russ”. We’re delighted to notice the presence of Malaysian writer Zen Cho, and Hungarian writer Csilla Kleinheincz (a contributor to the upcoming Apex Book of World SF 2) in the anthology.
The full ToC:
- “Ghost of a Horse Under a Chandelier” by Georgina Bruce
- “Storyville 1910″ by Jewelle Gomez
- “Her Heart Would Surely Break in Two” by Michelle Labbé
- “Black Eyed Susan” by Esther Garber / Tanith Lee
- “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings” by Steve Berman
- “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window” by Rachel Swirsky
- “The Children of Cadmus” by [info]ellen_kushner
- “The Guest” by Zen Cho
- “Rabbits” by Csilla Kleinheincz
- “The Egyptian Cat” by Catherine Lundoff
- “World War III Doesn’t Last Long” by Nora Olsen
- “The Effluent Engine.” by N. K. Jemisin
We’ve not had the opportunity to run many of these short story highlights this year, which is a shame, as they allow us to showcase specific stories as and when they appear. We’ve featured Malaysian author Zen Cho once before (and hope to have an interview with her soon) – her latest work of fiction is the novella The House of Aunts at GigaNotoSaurus:
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.” – continue reading.
This week on the World SF Blog, Joyce Chng interviews Malaysian writer K.S. “Kaz” Augustin.
I’m not sure what to say. I was born in Malaysia, educated overseas, have worked on several continents and, right now, am temporarily back in Malaysia with my family.
I wouldn’t know, to be honest. I don’t target any Malaysian (or Singaporean) publishers for my work. From what I’ve seen on the bookshelves, paranormal stories are very popular, what Charles Tan described as “magical realism” when describing genre fiction in the Philippines.
To atone for this omission, I write a large number of “minority” characters into my books. (It strikes me as amusing that I have to refer to olive/tan/black-skinned women/people as minority characters when we make up the majority of the world’s population, but them’s the socio-political breaks.) And, just to turn things around a bit, my villains tend to–but not always!–have the pale skins! LOL
Two things. If you’re doing this through some visceral yearning, then learning the craft will always stand you in good stead. Reading books you enjoy to then analyse why you enjoy them, playing around with different points of view, taking a few literature courses and so on. If you’re doing this to make a living out of, then remember that, not only do you have to do the first thing, but you also have to run your work as a business.
KS “Kaz” Augustin writes space opera(!) and some contemporary and fantasy romance. Her website is at http://www.ksaugustin.com Under the pen-name Cara d’Bastian, she is also writing an urban fantasy series set in south-east Asia. You can catch up with Kaz’s and Cara’s blogs at http://blog.ksaugustin.com and http://caradbastian.blogspot.com respectively. When not writing, Kaz is private tutor to two very good children. They’re not Einsteins, but they’re willing to think and try things, which is all she asks.
Eeleen Lee has a new article, The Magical Roots of Malaysian Horror Fiction In English, over at the Portal:
In contrast to its colonial manifestations, contemporary Malaysian horror in English is a vibrant and dynamic field made up of prolific Malaysian writers. The best known national name is Tunku Halim, who specializes in extreme horror and dark fantasy. Halim debuted in 1997 with a short story collection, The Rape of Martha Teoh and Other Chilling Stories, and a novel, Dark Demon Rising, which was inspired by Endicott’s An Analysis of Malay Magic . In 1999 Halim published more macabre short fiction in BloodHaze: 15 Chilling Tales, that includes the Fellowship of Australian Writers prize-winning metafictional story “This Page is Left Intentionally Blank”. 44 Cemetery Road (MPH Publishing, 2007) compiles the best of Tunku Halim’s stories written from 2000-2006. International readers can find the darkly humorous “Biggest Baddest Bomoh”, a short story from The Rape of Martha Teoh republished in the anthology The Apex Book of World SF (edited by Lavie Tidhar, 2009).
Apart from Tunku Halim’s work, there are other notable Malaysian horror fiction collections written in English. Retired Singaporean minister Othman Wok penned two short story collections that feature supernatural horror stories, The Disused Well (Horizon Books, 2006) and Unseen Occupants and Other Chilling Tales (Horizon Books, 2007). Dark City (Midnight Press, 2006) by Xeus, features horror and suspense stories with a Malaysian urban setting. The most striking of these is the disguised social commentary of “Trashcan Child”, in which the biological mother of an abandoned infant offers its foster mother a supernatural chance for redemption. The popular success of Dark City generated a second volume Dark City 2 (2007). Horror fiction also earned critical acclaim in The 2009 MPH Alliance Bank National Short Story Writing Competition. One of the shortlisted stories was “The Hunter and the Tigress” by Zed Adam Idris, about an indigenous tribesman who must destroy a shape-shifting spirit that has been imprisoned as a tiger motif painted onto an earthenware plate. – read the full article!
The diverse history of Malaysia has given rise to a unique folklore that stems from multiple sources such as animism, tribal beliefs, shamanism and various religions such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Serious studies of the occult exist, if heavily biased by colonial views at the time of writing, such as Malay Magic: An Introduction to the Folklore and Popular Religion of the Malay Peninsular by Walter William Skeat (Frank and Cass Co.Limited 1900, reprinted 1965). To date, the best-known study is An Analysis of Malay Magic by Kirk Michael Endicott (Oxford Claredon, 1970). Widespread interest in the subject of occultism and popular national consumption of Western supernatural fiction has created a brand of distinctly Malaysian horror written in English. Continue reading