On the outskirts of Kota Bharu, in a rental Perodua

Mouseover Malay text for an English translation

Kami kat luar Pacific Hotel, pak cik,” said Jen down the phone. She was still pink with frustration from driving in circles all morning.

The voice that answered her was hard to make out, partly because it was fuzzed up by being on speakerphone, but mostly because it was pure Kelantan. But it only said a few words anyway:

Sampai dah? Awak tunggu!

“Eh!”

But the pak cik had hung up. Jen and Hwee Ning shared a look of confusion.

“See lah, read food blogs some more,” said Hwee Ning. “That’s what happens when you try to follow the hipsters.”

“Are there even any hipsters in Kelantan?” said Jen mournfully. She jabbed at her smartphone, as if in hope that that would persuade it to explain where they were and how they had got there. “If there was at least they’d update Waze!

Hipste Kelate by Alina Choong
Portrait of a hipste Kelate by Alina Choong

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Stockholm, May 14

Stockholm, May 14

Question: What is reality?

Answer: A sphere where humans through consensus have established rules for how things work. Language is the most important method through which humans convey the rules for how the world functions and what it contains.

Stockholm, May 18

Question: Does reality have the same shape everywhere?

Answer: No, of course not. Local realities are always subtly different. For example, the American reality is dramatically more heavy on frightening imagery than ours. Interestingly enough: ”aliens” began as a defense mechanism in the brain, mixed with the influence of science fiction. These entities now have their own place. Reality has widened to include a new phenomenon.

Stockholm, June 9

Question: Do they have a purpose here?

Follow-up question: Can we understand that purpose? Would we find it relevant?

Answer: It’s uncertain whether we would understand. But the fact remains that in our pocket of the world, there are creatures who for some reason want to coexist with us.

The Green family goes to the mountains

DSCN1634“You’re just in time, Ah Guang Ge. Grandmother was asking after you.”

“Where is she? I must pay my respects,” said Guang.

Jiayi shook her head. “Don’t worry, she wasn’t angry. Anyway she’s distracted now. Your siblings are exchanging poems. Come and watch them.”

He shuffled off his shoes and followed her through the house. The smell of the cedar walls and floors, mingled now with the tart fragrance of oranges filling the house, brought back to him powerfully the Spring Festivals of his childhood. The tables were laden with golden fruit representing prosperity: besides the ubiquitous New Year’s oranges, there were fresh persimmons and the last of the winter’s dried apricots, a speciality of the City Between The Hills.

Though it was the start of spring it was still cold up here in the mountains, and as usual everyone was crammed into the large interconnected space of the dining room and kitchen. Guang stepped into the midst of warmth and laughter and the smells of good food. Shouts of welcome greeted his entrance, but these were immediately followed by hisses for silence: Zhenzhu and Bing were duelling.

The snow recedes from the mountaintops,” said Bing.

The apricot trees blossom, white-petalled
Winter bows out, allowing spring’s entrance
What joy to take wine with our family!

The apricot trees blossom, white-petalled,” replied Zhenzhu.

Like froth on the waves of the sea
What joy to take wine with our family
But remember our friends below!

This was a courtesy to Guang — and a challenge. He bowed, and replied:

Like froth on the waves of the sea
Is the morning’s first thin ray of sunlight.
Since your brother has travelled since dawn
Won’t you feed him instead of reproach him?

This was a breach of the rules, but it drew a burst of laughter.

“Have you forgotten your form, Fourth Brother?” said Zhen, shaking her head.

She was the youngest of their generation, the golden seventh child — sixteen years old and her grandmother’s special pet. The Lü departed from traditional Han culture in valuing their daughters the most, and allocating to them most of the power within the family, for though all the Lü children were magical the talent evinced itself most strongly in the female line.

Zhen was not only a daughter — and Guang’s family counted fewer girls among them than they would have liked, with five sons to balance out their two daughters — but the seventh child of a seventh child, born of the direct line that could trace itself back to the first Lü scholar-magician, Mistress Lü. With so many natural advantages she was outrageously gifted, spoilt, clever, charming when she wished to be, ruthlessly ambitious, and almost totally bereft of a sense of humour.

Siargao, 3rd Month of Madrina’s 23rd year

From where she stood, Siren could hear the boom of the waves as they crashed into the hollow beneath the cliffs. No one knew better how treacherous those waves could be, after all, this was where Siren had spent her childhood–the country where she’d honed her skills, where she’d discovered a joy that exceeded the dream of flight.

Her heart twisted at the look that crossed Adji’s face. They’d worked side by side these past few weeks, and she’d never once imagined that the surgeon was the one she sought. Siren had seen her handiwork firsthand and every single timoran who had passed under this woman’s hands would bear her mark. An indelible stamp to prove that they had passed through the hands of one of Ayudan’s most gifted surgeons.

More than catching her, Siren wanted to know why, but time was running out and the look on Adji’s face sent alarm racing through her body.

Don’t you ever feel it in your blood? Adji said. Don’t you ever wonder what it’s like? Surely the heritage that travels through your veins whispers to you sometimes.

I don’t know what you mean, Siren said. We are the same, aren’t we, Adji? Common. You and I. What other heritage is there?

Adji laughed.

You are no more common than I am. You who display the work of Corazon so proudly on your walls. I’ve seen your body map, Siren. I know what waits in your blood.

You speak in riddles, Siren replied. Come away from the Cliffside, Adji. It’s dangerous there.

Deny it all you want, the woman said. I know what I saw when I looked inside you.

You saw nothing I don’t already know, Siren said.

A flash of light showed Siren the look of pain that crossed the Adji’s face.

They took from us, Adji said. We gave and still they took until we were left with no other choice but to leave. We must hide the proof of who we are while they traverse the skies and the spaces that were once ours.

It’s not my intention to harm you, Siren said. I only want to ask you some questions.

Adji laughed.

It’s too late for talking, she said. No one listened before, and no one will listen now.

Please, Siren said.

Adji backed away from her, inched closer to the edge of the cliff.

Listen to me, Adji said. There are secrets you don’t know about. You think you’ve found your saboteur, but I will tell you this, it wasn’t my hand that broke the timoran.

Then why, Siren asked. Why run?

In the distance, Siren could hear the voices of the others. Finally, they were picking up the trail.

Adji heard them too, and her face twisted into a grimace.

You won’t understand, Adji said. But you will understand very soon.

As in a dream, she saw Adji reach towards her, her body jolted forward and then they were falling, falling through the darkness, falling through the rain, the sea was rushing up towards them and then Adji’s voice was in her ear, chanting a song, chanting a rhythm, strong arms closed about her, and then just when the spray touched her face, they were lifting up and away. Talons gripped her flesh, the arms that enclosed her were scaled and the body pressed to hers was no longer woman, but something other.
Qata, the word whispered through her mind as oblivion took her.

Blood in Abundance

An excerpt from “How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian”published in Phantazein (FableCroft Publishing).

One morning in the jungle, without blinking, Tenu shot down two from the flock of toucans fleeing from Daza’s jumble of notes and said, “Enough. We are finished for the day.”

Daza could hardly complain as he followed her into the clearing to which she carried the birds. The sun was high over the trees as Tenu piled sticks in a circle, sat on a fallen log, and began rubbing a long twig between her palms.

When Daza realized what she intended to do, he took one of the toucans’ still-warm bodies and placed it atop a stump. He said, “I know you have no patience with me, Tenu. But if you can find it in you to wait a while, I promise it will not be in vain. Let me apologize for your Tateh.”

Then he lopped off the toucan’s head with his hunting knife, tracing the symbol of Vaya in blood on the ground around the firewood, muttering a prayer of thanks. When the blood was drained, he returned to the stump and plucked the feathers from the carcass, gutted it, and seasoned everything with the salt and paste and oregano he kept wrapped in banana leaves in a pouch. He asked Tenu—who had been noting his precision, his oscillations between savagery and gentleness as she got the fire going—to procure for him a tomato from her father’s jungle garden. After halving it, Daza squeezed the pulp over the length of the bird, and chopped up the remains. Then he skewered the entrails, then the body, set the carcass over the now burning ring of twigs, and turned it until they were nice and brown.

When it was done, Daza speared a piece with his knife and handed it to Tenu. She blew on it, bit it off, chewed, and let the juices spread over her tongue. A moment of thoughtful silence passed. She said, “I see.”

“See what?”

“You belong to the wrong god.”

Daza averted his gaze. “Boys are not supposed to cook.”

Tenu gestured to her pipes. “And girls are not supposed to hunt. But look at me.”

Machen does not know I watch and listen to her teach my sisters to cook. She is grooming baika Tachi as the next doru.”

Tenu sniffed. “Do not be insulted, but I heard your baika can barely soak maize.”

They ate for a while in wordless understanding.

“Tenu, do you hate me?” said Daza suddenly.

“How sly you are,” she answered. “To ask me such a question when I am stuffing myself with your savory food.”

“Do you?”

“Your word choice is stronger than your spices. No, I do not—I used to think you were useless,” Tenu added, and the twinkle in her eyes caught Daza by surprise. “And if what you are truly wondering is if I blame you for what happened to Tateh, no, I do not. I could, but I do not.”

“Then why did you seem angry with me when—?”

“Well, to be truthful, I blamed you then,” Tenu was quick to answer. “And the way the villagers fawned over you when it was so clear you were incapable of the music left a bad taste in my mouth. Not that I care for them, you understand. But I think they believe in all the wrong things.”

Daza flinched at her honesty, but he was grateful for it. At least she bore him no ill will. They ate again in silence until at length, he said, “Tenu, what do I do? Everyone expects me to hunt for my family now—yet I cannot make music, I cannot trap beasts!”

Tenu finished her meal, licked the tips of her fingers. “That was very good. Better than I have had in a long time, and I usually eat the neighbor’s leftovers and the occasional insect when they are too busy. You cook like a woman.”

“Tenu!”

“And,” she added with a pointed stare. “I hunt like a man.”

Cupped in her hands like a precious gem was the other toucan, which she held out to Daza. He stared a while at the carcass, met Tenu’s eyes, nodded, and took it from her.

Outside Amatka

The sun and the sky push the tundra down.

Out of the ground grow iron pipes with riveted seams. They are painted yellow and white.

Some of them bend at an angle. The paint flakes here and there.

The pipes form thickets on the hills.

Their burst openings turn toward the sun.

 

I djupet står en jättelik ångmaskin,

en trädgård uppsprungen runtomkring;

färglös murgröna och klematis virar sig runt pistongerna

ramar in urtavlorna och kryper sakta uppför pannan.

En skorpa av kalksten har bildats på hjulet.

 

Ice forms on the sea at night. A silhouette stands by a hole in the ice

where a bronze pipe sticks out of the water.

 

Frost creeps up the metal.

 

The silhouette draws a deep breath.

At age 16, in Lubuk Udang

Ah Lee had only been 16 when she died and she felt that she had not had time to take shape. She worried that now she was dead she would never get to be a real person.

When she died, at first she had been so full of rage at the man who had given her the baby that had killed her that it did not occur to her to worry about personal growth. She gobbled up men with injudicious greed, not because she liked the taste but because she wanted them to suffer. The local population of men of a certain age dropped dramatically.

The aunts disapproved. Such particularity in a small town was liable to draw attention, not a good thing when you are a household of vampires just trying to get on with your lives. And there were even worse potential consequences of Ah Lee’s overindulgence.

“You will get fat!” said Ah Chor, Ah Ma, Sa Ee Poh, Ji Ee, Tua Kim and Aunty Girl.

After a while Ah Lee stopped, though not because she was worried about putting on weight. She got bored of the taste of middle-aged men, and she stopped being so angry. She started eating for enjoyment again, and not simply as a way of getting back at her horrible death.

She never ate women, however.