Rated R, for a rowdy band of righteous monsters.
Field Reports from the Department of Monster Resettlement
by L. Chan
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: two ghosts, a pontianak and a manananggal are sitting around the third floor of a community centre after dark. The trick isn’t getting them to come to the support group, the trick is getting them to agree to be resettled.
I arrange swiss rolls, cream puffs and savory pastries in company lines that would have impressed a drill sergeant, but would the Assistant Director down at the department or my guests care? I don’t know. What do monsters eat anyway? Puppies. The blood of virile young men. Hapless neophyte civil servants.
The carpet used to be a garish orange and brown, pattern reminiscent of bolognese regurgitated by a dog. Greying fabric wallpaper went threadbare over dented dry wall. The hole by the door was the right size and shape for a fist. Goodness knows what they used this room for. At least the department got it cheap.
First job, first resettlement, first time I’m on my own, no more training, no safety net, no screwups. I’ve got the profiles of all the monsters printed out. Twelve point font, double-spaced, one inch margins, colour-coded plastic tabs for each profile by ethnicity. That’s the whole point of the policy. Have to mix them up, nobody wants all the jiang shi and kuei to be in one place, all the toyols and hantus to be in another. Not to mention those that we’ve imported into this melting pot. I accept the sugar coated logic pill, down the hatch with a cool draught of my own university education, not pausing to think about what’s at the heart of the medicine. It’s all good.
For a moment, there’s a stiff stage fright breeze, a whiff of the air beyond the curtains, that the monsters won’t turn up, that I’m going to slink back to the office tomorrow in some reverse walk of shame.
Then there’s a scratching at the dust speckled window. The manananggal is here. They’re coming, all good little monsters, every one. That’s Singapore for you.
To: Assistant Director Fong
Subject: Manananggal profile
The manananggal is a fresh migrant monster. She only preys on pregnant women, subsisting on the extracted blood of the unborn fetus or amniotic fluid. The conditions of her stay have been reiterated to her, notably the requirement to cap the amount she consumes from any given victim. She sleeps during the day and only needs sufficient space to store her lower half at night. She gets along well with the pontianak. Integration is unlikely to be an issue. She responds to Rosa.
To: Staff Officer Ching
Subject: Re: Manananggal profile
Update noted. Level of detail in your profile is not up to scratch. Please expedite the remainder of your work and do better next time. Resettlement should be concluded before the closing of the financial year for it to be counted to this year’s targets.
It should be easier the second time around. First engagement sessions are always disasters, right? Didn’t Wei Boon run a session with group of orang minyak, or oily men? Before he packed up and left for the private sector, he described an hour of giving powerpoint presentations to a bunch of naked, aroused demons. The hardest part, he shared as he handed the good office chair to me (much to the jealousy of others in the department), was figuring out where in his audience to look.
I should count myself lucky that I got a better mix of monsters, even if I had to give most of the food away. Who knew catering for monsters was going to be so difficult?
This time I leave the window open. It’s better that way, I’m more comfortable with the stench of traffic than the mouldy carpet and CFC laden burps of the ailing air conditioner. Rosa is early. Of course, she doesn’t need stairs. She clambers through the window, pulling her half-body over the sill and folding her wings close to her back. Rosa’s half a woman, bifurcated at the waist, viscera dragging behind her as she flops into the room.
Legends call her hideous, but up close, she is merely plain looking. She finds her way to the clothes rail I’ve procured for her, securing herself with loops of her exposed guts and hanging upside down. She assures me that this is more than comfortable.
“Good evening, Cassie. Have you eaten?”
I greet her back, omitting to ask her the same. I know what Rosa eats. She speaks perfect English accented with the cadence of sea and archipelago. Her tone is light; happiness is in the DNA of the people that believe in her; and by consequence she is a happy sort of monster. A slight lisp mars her speech because of her tongue coiled up in her mouth, a full six inches long and tapered to a point like a mosquito’s proboscis.
I offer her cake for a second night in a row, but she demurs. It’s odd to feel the chest tightening anxiety of speaking to another person when faced with an upside down, bat-winged half-woman, but it’s there all the same. I pretend to be busy with organizing slices of cake when the pontianak arrives.
Ameenah is tall and willowy, your typical Asian ghost with jet black hair and a white gown to her ankles. She’s got the straight regality of a noble, handsome features to match, but she smells like cold dirt and sweet flowers, trailing earth from her fingernails and her bare feet. The pontianak doesn’t greet the two of us, but at least she takes a slice of cake in each hand and shambles over to a plastic seat. I follow her, fussing over the flakes of grave dirt she’s leaving everywhere. Pontianaks are ostensibly miscarried fetuses, but they live in banana trees and are more plant than human. And they have terrible manners.
“Good evening, Ms Ameenah, you haven’t completed your paperwork.” I shield myself with a sheath of forms. What was it that worked against pontianaks? A Koran was supposed to scare them off, legends were silent about other religious iconography, which is unhelpful when one is right there making a noise like an angry baby through gritted razor blade teeth.
“Don’t worry about Ameenah’s forms, Cassie, she can’t read anyway,” says Rosa. I’m still trying to get the pontianak to sign off on the resettlement forms when our potential confrontation is defused by the appearance of my final two guests, one ghost carrying one haunted video tape. I can only assume that there’s a ghost in the video tape as the docket I received suggested.
Chun bids me good evening, rustling her traditional wedding garb, heavy woven cloth with delicate embroidery. She greets the other two monsters in turn, always polite and demure, covering her mouth with her flowing sleeves when she smiles or laughs. I’m surprised to see that the ghost bride’s feet are tiny, her sequined cloth shoes no larger than a child’s. She would have had difficulty walking in life, but now she floats across the room to place the tape next to the tray of food.
Even the old television dramas at the senior citizens centre downstairs had gone digital. Haunted items were in vogue at the turn of the century, music boxes, lockets and the like. Enough people got the idea from The Ring that haunting bits of technology was the next step in spiritual manifestation. Pity about futureproofing though. Who knows where to get a VHS player today? They don’t make them anymore. Thankfully, we never throw anything away in the government.
Giving up on Ameenah for the moment, I set about trying to work the tape on a twenty year old video cassette player (property of the Singapore government, signed for in triplicate by one Cassie Ching). It’s not working out, the screen shows a snowstorm.
“You have wires backwards,” says Ameenah, peering into the spilled spaghetti mess of cables behind the stand. “Yellow to yellow, red to red. Even baby can do.”
Her speech is soft and unaccented. I don’t stop to think about the incongruity of a tree spirit learning the Queen’s English; but some things, I can’t pass up. “Where’d you learn about video players anyway, Ameenah?”
“Alive two hundred years. Also electrician once hung television aerial from my tree.”
“Oh, so that’s where you learnt about video recorders? Were you friends or something?”
“No, very disrespectful to hang antenna on tree. I tore his head off and buried it under tree to digest slowly.”
“That’s nice, Ameenah.” I mean, there really isn’t a good comeback for that and the 101 of focus groups says to keep the conversation going. “I think I just have to change the channel and…” The static resolves itself into a reflection of the room we are in. I look behind me to confirm that there isn’t a camera up on the ceiling. The scene on the television has one key difference, a jittery patch of pure darkness that makes its way closer and closer to the camera, pressing pale bloodless hands on the screen. Impossibly, the screen bends outwards, taking the shape of a shambling young girl, not yet out of her teens, her long hair covering her face, her childish figure under a white shroud, her movements stop-motion jerks.
She makes her way over to the food. Her translucent white hand passes through the pandan chiffon cake. She sighs.“You’re all cursed to die in seven days or something. Unless you make a copy of the tape and show it to someone else, yadda yadda. Terms and conditions on the back of the box.”
“Already dead,” says the other ghost.
“Was never alive to start with,” says the manananggal.
“Am a tree,” says the pontianak. The three of them look at me.
“I’ll put it on the to-do list,” I snap, trying to fill in all the empty fields in a stack of forms.
“It’s Lisa,” she says from just behind my ear. I drop the papers. The young ghost giggles.
“Hey,” says Rosa. “You’ve got the same get up as Ameenah over there.”
We look at the pontianak and back at Lisa. It’s true.
“It’s a classic look,” she says.
“Been wearing this for two hundred years,” grumbles Ameenah, helping herself to more cake. “Fashion bound to come around again.”
“And yet we’ve only seen bell-bottoms once,” says Rosa. “Anyway, Cassie, I don’t think the government is getting us here over and over again to feed us cake right?”
Actually, I’m the one paying for the cake. And it’s not cheap. I clear my throat, even Ameenah stops stuffing her face.
“You’re all here as part of the compulsory resettlement programme. The government seeks to make sure that all settlements have an acceptable mix of monsters across all ethnic origins.” I know this from memory, the policy paper on monster resettlement was compulsory day one reading in the department and we could cite it down to the footnote. I’d already drunk the kool aid, but it wasn’t sitting well when I was up close and personal with the collateral damage.
The manananggal speaks first.
No fuss, no argument. The others stare wide-eyed at her, the loquacious one, first to cave. She’s given it some thought, launching into a speech that has rehearsed confidence.
“You guys have it easy. Every night I come out to feed, I have to worry that some slob will find my legs and rub salt on my guts so I melt in the morning like a garden slug. Or who knows what else he’d do with a pair of warm legs and no yapping mouth attached.” Rosa’s wild visage relaxes, her problem finally off her chest. “Anyway, it’s getting harder to find places to store my legs. They’re over at a Forever 21 shopfront now, wearing size six pants and propped up with the mannequins.”
That’s the puzzle of where Rosa stored her legs at night settled.
Lisa shrugs, the next to give in. “I’d rather go live where I’m safe than wind up in a landfill somewhere.”
Chun furrows her porcelain white brow. “So are you the tape or are you in the tape? If we make a copy, there’s two of you?”
The young ghost puffs out her cheeks and blows jet black hair from her face. It flops back down and covers her eyes. “I don’t know. Who knows who made the rules anyway? I guess I’m in the recording somehow. You need to pass the curse to someone else for the thing to work out.It’s like a… a…” Lisa snaps her fingers, trying to recall a word.
“Haunted videotape?” asks Ameenah. She really does have the imagination of a plant.
“Unpopular classmate,” says Chun.
“Sexual disease,” says Rosa, always with the filthy mind, that one.
“Chain letter,” concludes Lisa, a little more snappily than before. “Say, Cassie, could you at least change the channel so I can hang out somewhere nicer?”
The remote works after a few tries, cycling through a drama, the news before settling on some travel show in a upmarket restaurant. Lisa slides back into screen, melding into the background and lurching over to a vacated table, settling in to polish off someone’s leftovers. Distraction resolved. I turn to the pontianak.
Ameenah fidgets, loosing soil from her fingernails and dead leaves from her hair. “Not going. Staying with tree.”
Most monsters have a sense of place, a haunt, a range. I suppose the pontianak had literal roots to worry about. “We’ve moved trees before, ma’am. Banana trees have shallow root systems, you won’t feel a thing.” Nailed the recovery, it was the fifty-third question in our FAQ.
“Been here two hundred years. Older than you. Older than government. Not fair.” Ameenah’s serene face is crumpling like paper. I fumble in my bag and offer her a tissue from a battered packet. Rosa shoots me a dirty look, snatches the tissue and awkwardly puts an arm around the pontianak. It’s not easy when you’re upside down, but it’s the thought that counts.
I’ve done the public engagement course, the customer management thing, but there’s just something about a leaky pontianak that defies all my training. I busy myself thumbing through the FAQ. Nothing there on monster rights. There is no folklore in which monsters outnumber people; no legend in which they are inescapable, undefeatable. Old as our shadows, yet incapable of owning a piece of soil. Aren’t land rights fundamental to democracy? Anyway that’s about as high above my pay grade as… human rights are above monster rights? Thinking about it will make your head spin.
“So, Chun, what’s your take on resettlement?” Gotta get back in the groove. Hit that performance target. Don’t be a dead weight on the team.
The ghost sighs, an old habit. She doesn’t breathe. “It’s a long story.”
To: Assistant Director Fong
Subject: Ghost Bride profile
Chun looks to be in her early twenties. She has all the typical trappings associated with a haunting; namely, electromagnetic interference, cold spots and low level poltergeist phenomena. It is recommended that any officers dealing with her check for their phones and keys before leaving as she has a habit of moving them.
On further probing, I have ascertained that she has no tragic past nor did she die by violence. Having died at a young age, part of her remains were used to bind her spirit to her husband in a traditional ghost marriage. Apparently, this used to be necessary so that the younger siblings could get married.
I understand that she is held in this arrangement against her will, unable to pass on to the next world. Her earthly husband has some form of control over her, and she is unwilling to elaborate further on their interactions. But there are adequate indications that the relationship is abusive. I recommend that we surface her case to enforcement, it doesn’t seem right for anybody to be held like that.
To: Staff Officer Ching
Subject: Re: Ghost Bride profile
Please arrange to see me first thing tomorrow morning.
“You’re not looking so good,” observes Rosa, dangling from her clothes rack.
Lisa nods, arms crossed and draped from the television set like a dreamer leaning out of a window. Ameenah’s still not talking to me, but not angry enough to stop eating cake. It’s lapis sagu this time, a steamed multi-layered confection of sticky tapioca flour. The pontianak peels each differently coloured layer off the stack with her dirty nails, eating it the same way I did as a child.
I’m moving files around on my computer, digital spring cleaning, the kind of busy work that engages that hands but not the brain. By the third engagement session, I’m supposed to be handing out little paper bags with pamphlets explaining the resettlement process, hotline numbers, even a little department keychain with a smiling ghost plushie. Instead I’ve got an angry Malay vampire moping over cake and one ghost who may or may not be a victim of domestic abuse.
This morning’s conversation with the Assistant Director had been bad, bad, bad, delivered with the laconic precision of a man trimming the sails to steer his career down safe routes to the haven of a state pension. Rocking the boat was forbidden, new staff officers should be team players. Doing the right thing was paramount – but I didn’t get to choose what’s right for Chun. Just like Chun doesn’t get to decide for herself.
Just another piece of clockwork, at the ass end of a very big machine. The pressures build up all the way down the line, strong enough to tear you to pieces if you’re not in step. Your bit stops working but the machine goes on, so why resist at all?
“Rosa and Lisa, your resettlement has been processed, you’ll be moving within the month.” Keep the delivery flat, smile with my teeth, not with my eyes, recite the script like a good little girl.
“Ameenah, your appeal against resettlement was noted and I regret to inform you that it has been rejected by the department.” Ameenah doesn’t flinch, doesn’t blink. Goes on eating her cake. I can do this. I can soldier on.
“Chun…” The ghost bride looks up, she’s still resplendent in her traditional wedding gown, her ghost shimmer making it ever more ethereal and flowing than it would have been in real life.
Chun, the department has decided to honour the terms of the ghost marriage, we will not be resettling you. It’s alright for the man that dug your remains out of the ground to own your soul, we’ll find someone else to take your place.
That’s the script. All that’s coming out of my mouth is Chun’s name, skipping record style. The room’s the same as it was when we first met; peeling walls, fraying carpet, dumb pencil pusher, earnest monsters.
“Chun, we’re going to get you out of there.”
For the first time, I see Ameenah smile. Her teeth are very sharp. It’s unsettling.
To: Assistant Director Fong
Subject: Pontianak profile
Ameenah claims to be over two hundred years old. Tradition has it that she’s the manifest spirit of a miscarried baby, although popular culture misinterprets this by labelling her the ghost of a pregnant woman. She has the appearance of a lady in her twenties, of surpassing beauty. Her abode is a large banana tree. Although banana trees live for around six years, that can hardly be used to validate her claimed age.
Despite her slim build, she exhibits strength beyond normal human limits. She is surly but generally polite. She may casually bring up former instances of violence but nothing of note is on her file.
Due to the nature of her manifestation, I would recommend not to resettle her, given that she has occupied the banana tree prior to assigned government land use.
To: Staff Officer Ching
Subject: Re: Pontianak profile
Report noted. I disagree with your recommendation. Resettlement is a national priority. Having monsters in their own integrated communities allows us to take care of their needs more efficiently, and to free up valuable land for redevelopment free of the encumbrances that monsters may impose.
We’re near where Chun lives. It’s a standard block of government flats, all straight angles and honest steel fixtures, untarnished by heat and rain. Somewhere upstairs, the last of Chun’s earthly remains sat in a funerary urn, bound by sympathetic magic and old rites. Windows were dark, save for the few who favoured the orchestra of cats yowling at the nastier side of midnight.
There’s four of us, novice public official and three monsters. I’ve bribed a guy down at IT to send Lisa’s tape to guy he knows with very specific instructions. Guess we’ll find out how that entire curse thing works if we change the media format. I’m not sure she would have been much help here. Dragging to people to hell is useful, but the wait is a bit excessive.
Rosa’s riding piggyback on Ameenah, ropes of her intestines dangling, shiny and pink, down the pontianak’s legs, just above the floor. She’s particular about the latter; she hates picking lint and dirt off her guts before she rejoins her two halves. It’s a simple plan, Rosa gets in through a window, lets us in. Ameenah’s playing defence, since she’s the strongest of us. Chun can’t do much about her own remains and she’s in thrall to her husband, so I don’t think she’ll be useful.
“Ameenah, you just have to scare Chun’s husband if he comes out of his room, don’t hurt him, okay?” The shambling lady grunts as we climb the stairs. Chun glides up beside us as smoothly as if she were on an escalator.
“Is this the place where they’re supposed to stick a nail to defeat you?” Rosa asks, prodding at a spot on Ameenah’s neck. The latter bucks like a horse, near violent enough to throw the manananggal to the ground.
“Apparently if you stick a nail here, she follows you home and becomes a good wife. Typical male answer to problems with women.” Rosa snickers and gives me a knowing look. “Anybody try that with you before, Ameenah?”
“Once,” says the pontianak. “Many years ago. Young fisherman. Very handsome. Strong hands.”
There was a softness to Ameenah’s voice that hadn’t been there before. “So did you bring him home?” I ask.
“Yes, back to his family. I put him in his bed for them to find. His hands and his head I kept, in case I got hungry.” At this, even Rosa is silent, nothing but the sound of our footsteps as we climb the stairs. Ameenah guffaws, and it’s a pure sound, higher and clearer than a child’s laugh.
“Too cruel. What did his family ever do to me? Threw body into the river for fish to eat. Fair.” She looks at me with her glassy, unfocused eyes. “I think having friends is not so bad. We talk about moving my tree later. First, we have work to do.”
We’re at the door, it’s non-descript, same as every other standard issue frame along the corridor. Rosa takes off, almost, but not quite, like a bat out of hell, flapping around the side of the building to look for the windows to the flat. I nod at Chun, who bites her lip and frowns at the fluorescent lighting tubes along the ceiling. One by one, they wink out. When was the last time you saw a ghost in full focus with all the lights on? It’s a cool party trick and it’s coming in handy.
Three weeks ago I was trying to resettle monsters. Now I’m breaking and entering. Great. There’s a click from the other side of the door. Rosa’s done her bit. Ameenah reaches for the door, I grab her wrist, it’s cool and clammy, the soft yield of her forearm doesn’t give away her preternatural strength.
“No killing anybody, okay, Ameenah?”
The pontianak pauses, “If he attacks you, I tear his head off?”
“No tearing his head off, just punch him or something.”
“Punch… through chest?”
“No, just a little punch, please.”
Ameenah rolls her undead eyes, giving me the universal “whatever”. She pushes the door open and we’re in: demon, ghost and terrified bureaucrat holding up a mobile phone to light her way. Rosa’s lounging on the sofa, her work done. She angles her head towards the bedroom, someone’s snoring like a diesel engine in there. The flat is tiny, the kind of place where you can smell a living room fart from the kitchen; furniture cheap and mismatched, linoleum flooring textured like desiccated fruit.
I’m drawn towards a cabinet filled with the bric-a-brac of a life not lived. Souvenirs from the regional tourist traps, gaudy fetishes of luck gods in their paunchy glory, even that Japanese cat with the waving paw. Here in the junk, is the last of Chun’s earthly remains, no altar, no offerings. Just with the things. Just another thing.
Up till now, there had been a sliver of guilt at the direction a simple resettlement had taken. Not anymore. I pick up the urn.
“Careful, the top’s loose,” says Chun, right from behind my ear. That’s when I knock the Japanese cat over. I glare at the ghost bride, who mouths a “what” back at me. Rosa’s desperately flapping her hands at us. There’s no more snoring coming from the bedroom. Ameenah’s already on it. Chun looks at me, eyes wide, waiting for permission.
“No killing,” I whisper, waving at her to catch up with the pontianak. They vanish into the darkness of the room. Must be convenient, being able to see in the dark. There’s a muffled conversation, a dull crack and then silence.
The two of them are out before I can get to the room. Chun is happier than I’ve ever seen her. “Is he alive?” I ask. Ameenah nods furiously, flashing me a double thumbs up. She is a gorgeous monster, in the half-light from my mobile, with her dark eyes and sensuous red lips.
“We’re good to go?”
“Mmm hrmm,” says Ameenah, wearing a pouty little smile.
Pontianaks don’t wear lipstick.
“What the fuck is in your mouth?”
To: Assistant Director Fong
Subject: Haunted video profile
The last subject for resettlement is a Chinese girl in her teens. The focus of her haunting is a VHS tape, probably inspired by Japanese pop culture and other legends of haunted items. She has given her name and not much else. Lack of compatible equipment makes communication with her all but impossible. Our IT department referred me to a specialist who digitised the videotape for ease of interaction. She wanted to thank you personally for approving the resettlement. I’ll register it with the customer service department later, but I thought you’d like to see it first.
We watch Chun wave goodbye after we bury her bones just outside the community centre where we normally meet. Or bone, just a finger joint, such a small measure of trouble. They all performed admirably. Hardly Charlie’s Angels, but we got out with Chun’s urn and one of Chun’s husband’s fingers as collateral, I’m not quite certain who Chun threatened to marry his ghost to, but I have my suspicions.
The department’s quietened down, I’ve not gotten an email from the Assistant Director in days. Word is that they’re already looking for a replacement. And the Assistant Director. Lisa assures me that she doesn’t leave anything behind. Not fingerprints, not bodies. They’ll be looking for a long time.
“That was fun,” says Rosa, hanging upside down from a tree, her bat wings furled around her torso for warmth.
“Will miss her, but now Cassie can’t finish her job. Need four to resettle,” adds Ameenah. “Where’s Lisa?”
“Lisa will be along shortly,” I say. “Don’t worry about the resettlement. She’s bringing a friend.”
Because we’re all good monsters, every one of us.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Once a Silicon Valley software engineer, Curtis C. Chen (陳致宇) now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo (a 2017 Locus Awards Finalist) is a science fiction spy thriller about a superpowered secret agent facing his toughest mission yet: vacation. Curtis’ short stories have appeared in Playboy Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Oregon Reads Aloud. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers’ workshops. You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint on the second Tuesday of most every month. Visit him online www.curtiscchen.com.