Rated R for steamy friction, physical and ethical.
When Hope Is Lost, Touch Remains
By Nin Harris
Chowrasta Market was where Maria had learned to love books — upstairs in the claustrophobic crush of second-hand book stalls, where the musty smell of old paperbacks was drowned in a panoply of aromas from the market downstairs: fish, the blood of poultry, and the musk-laden spore of murdered mammals. Her bookishness was all she was able to offer the men who occasionally fell in love with her. They drowned in her literary wit and her fragile insecurities until the time when, as with all relationships, one must drift away and make an end.
Sometimes the endings were congenial.
More often than not the congeniality masked a secret pain, a gnawing loss at the realisation that another hope had been proven false. Because what are endings but a betrayal of some hope? But then again, what are endings if they are not a culmination of choices made?
At some point you realise that all you have is this void. All you have is this emptiness, and that should be okay. All of the librarians, all of the words, all of the secret libraries that inhabit the books of the novelists you gorge yourself upon, could only exist in those worlds. They could never exist in yours.
Even when she drew men, Maria did not possess beauty of the usually celebrated kind. Hers was a quiet beauty with that keen edge of hunger, of roughness. Her skin rubbed against strange places and magnified each sensation to an unbearable friction. Her flesh grew strange upon her bones, transmitting sound and colour and light, becoming a silkscreen through which she could examine the world. When her eyes closed at night, her body abraded lightly against dewy sheets. At night, when all defences were down, her life evolved through the breathing of her epidermis and the attentiveness of her fine hairs.
On the public buses Maria occasionally took when she was sick of navigating the dangerously curved road that led from Tanjung Bungah to Georgetown by car, she sometimes had to work especially hard to keep her body sacrosanct. She did what she could to avoid touch so that the furtive rub of human bodies in the rush hour crush would not overstimulate her wayward senses. Occasionally she lapsed and allowed the movement of the bus to push her against a form, just so she could feel the purchase of skin against skin, allowing the impression of personality to permeate her soul. Gently, ever so briefly, before she moved away in faux respect.
One night, she discovered how to pull a man’s soul through his skin. It was an accidental, involuntary thing, birthed in a stray moment of hope.
Jakob was a civil engineer attached to the Penang state government, a widower. He commuted to the island every morning and every evening from his semi-detached home in Seberang Perai. Because these middle-class Malaysian households often ran like clockwork, Leonora, his bank officer sister would be waiting to give him updates about her day at work. There would also be detailed reports of how his three children and Leonora’s two daughters had fared at school. His dinner would be cooked by their widowed Kristang auntie. It would be wholesome fare consisting of Kristang and Hainanese food, with the weekly digression into pasta bakes and a Sunday roast. His sister was a divorcee who had moved in with him when his wife’s body gave up its fierce struggle against a cancer of the lung, leaving him bent with grief in the first-class ward at the Penang General Hospital. Auntie Philomena moved in to look after the household and the children. It was enough for Jakob, who thought he would never again remarry, for Angela had been the love of his life. Had been. Everything on the island reminded him of her, and so they had moved back to Seberang Perai on the mainland.
Even though Jakob had no library and was not a particularly literary sort, he was the quintessential E. M. Forster antihero in Maria’s eyes. That was enough. But Jakob was no foolhardy and resplendent George Emerson. No. Rather, Jakob reminded her of Leonard Bast in Howards End, who was trapped in a job and by circumstances, left only to dream about things bigger than the drudgery of his day-to-day existence. Like the Schlegels in Forster’s novel, his despair drew her. Here was someone whose soul was more broken than hers. The taste of that was sweet, as sweet as the innocence still contained within his eyes.
Maria found herself unwittingly ensnaring him over a series of coffee breaks as she worked on upgrading the software in his department in the state government. If only she’d known that Jakob would change the trajectory of her life! But Maria did not know, and so she wooed him with her eyes and her many little gestures, honed to an art form nearly two decades ago when she was young and sought-after by literary men.
One day, he did not drive across Penang Bridge to have the dinner carefully cooked by Auntie Philomena. Instead, he found himself driving Maria back to her overpriced condominium in Tanjung Bungah, with its tasteful furnishings and plump Persian cats who were extraordinarily well-behaved even by Persian cat standards. There, Maria offered him dinner in a half-hearted attempt at decorum. He hovered in the kitchen, watching as she carefully washed rice grains, and stirred the chicken debal she had in the slow cooker. If he had actually tasted Maria’s Kristang cooking, he would envision Auntie Philomena weeping tears of envy and outrage. Sadly, Jakob did not taste what would have been the best chicken debal of his life. Instead, he found himself giving way to touch and warm, animal desire. Maria found herself backed, not unwillingly, against the kitchen wall, her thighs automatically parting to accommodate the form of the man pressed up against her. She closed her eyes against the sweet feeling of friction: his warm body against hers, as his hot mouth claiming her lips.
Touch for them in this instance was not about romantic communion. It was a language shared between two people who had given up on life even as their skin hungered for more. They stumbled towards her bedroom in hot, hungry footsteps full of groping hands and the wet sound of human lips applying suction to various body parts in an orgy of awkwardness and need. When he finally shed his soul in her bed, Maria thought it was his skin. She was beyond surprised when it came off and into her waiting hands as she stroked his upper arms. He did not even notice the loss of it as he buried his face at her throat and sobbed like a five-year-old boy whose favourite football had been taken away. She hugged him thoughtfully as she carefully pocketed the glistening entity that squirmed in her grip. She kept it in the drawer beside her bed.
Later that night, after she gently suggested he spend the night because a monsoon thunderstorm raged outside, Maria stared at the translucent entity on her bedside table as Jakob paced the corridor outside her bedroom. It compressed itself into the miniature figure of a man who paced in the corridor, arguing with his elder sister who wanted to know if he was having an affair.
“I can’t be having an affair if I’m no longer a husband, can I?” roared Jakob, both in the corridor, and on the bedside table.
“Shush,” Maria said to the figure on the table, who looked up at her in surprise. “Into the drawer, go!” She opened the drawer of the bedside table, and the bashful diminutive figure slipped inside.
Seconds later, Jakob appeared and without a word and tried to enter her bedside table drawer.
“What are you doing?” Maria asked him, surprised.
“I . . . don’t know,” said Jakob, looking as bewildered as she felt.
Frightened but determined not to show it, Maria drew him down beside her and held him as she crooned him to sleep. When he slept, she opened the drawer. The miniature of him was asleep as well. Maria surveyed the miniature thoughtfully, then looked down at Jakob. He was a good man, Maria thought. One who did not deserve to lose more than he already had. She picked up his soul and carefully whispered to it, “Return to the body you came from.”
The soul expanded into the skin it was before and covered Jakob in a nimbus of golden light. Slowly, it was absorbed into Jakob’s body until there was only a naked, snoring man.
With a sigh of despondent bewilderment, Maria walked to the kitchen to get her ignored dinner, which she ate in front of the television. When she woke up the next morning on her living room sofa, Jakob had already left, without leaving a note. Maria was phlegmatic about it. She had bigger problems to worry about now, and besides, that night had been the last night of her contract with the state government.
Inexplicably, Jakob returned that evening. He wore a bashful expression on his face and brought a bouquet of chrysanthemums wrapped up in a Chinese newspaper. He roared at Leonora over the telephone again that night.
(Their dalliances would be peppered by the sound of him bellowing at Leonora, who was a resentful babysitter.)
This would have continued, had their encounters not been a reminder to Maria that she was not a normal human being. Fear caked her consciousness every time he left her, mingled with a growing affection that confounded her. Fear that she would forget to return his soul to his body one night. Fear that he would fall into harm’s way because of her.
One night, she whispered to his soul that he should never return. She looked at his curly hair and his deep brown back as he snored, and sighed. She would have liked nothing more than have a normal life with this man, but this was the man who had also shown her that she was not normal.
“In the morning, leave, and forget to return to this home. Forget me,” she whispered to Jakob’s shimmering simulacrum who slept on a book of poems. She blew it a kiss.
When he stopped calling, Maria accepted it with a phlegmatic sorrow.
The night that she discovered she had the kind of powers one only read about was the same night the Straits of Malacca began to talk to her.
It was a small thing, but it did mean that her evening walks along the waterfront became more interesting. She listened to the water. She remembered stories of her Kristang grandmother, who could prophesize the future. She remembered that fishermen in her family always had unusual luck with their piscine catches. The everyday magic of childhood family lore had come to be her waking reality.
When her soul felt as heavy as an anvil around her neck, she would walk down Batu Ferringhi beach while an equatorial sun stained its pale sands ochre and peach. She would listen to the complex melodies of the Straits of Malacca as figures of the puaka air danced upon the waves. These sea entities who were her sisters enacted entire histories encompassing conquests and naval warfares, of every boat and swimmer drowned. And as the waves spoke, she listened.
Every now and then, it seemed as though her grandmother was speaking to her.
They say her grandmother had died in her sleep, almost drowning in her bed. Her corpse had become so waterlogged that her coffin weighed four times what it should. It was a bit of a family scandal and that saddened Maria, who loved her grandmother so fiercely. But now, as her grandmother walked with her along the waves, Maria knew the truth. The sea had demanded her grandmother’s return, and one day it would claim Maria as well.
A woman who has had her first taste of immortality through sex magic would not be deterred from repeat performances, not even by her own scruples. Not through any fear of getting hurt — emotionally or physically. But sex was all she thought she wanted, that and the power she gained from it.
Her next lover was a shaggy haired bookseller from one of the newer hipster bookstore cafés that sprouted like kulat after a monsoon storm on one of the ghauts that led off Beach Street. She had stumbled into his café one hot Sunday after a fruitless trawl through the Occupy Beach Street market for anything that would lift the pall of an empty weekend. Lam was a goateed man in an artfully retro singlet. A straw hat perched upon his head. Tattoos adorned his upper arms and his chest. He pushed aside a stack of books to grind Arabica beans for her iced latte.
Maria craned her neck to read the spines of the books he had been arranging.
“Newly arrived from Kuala Lumpur!” he said with a toothy, friendly grin.
“Do you have the sequel to The Wall of Storms?” Maria asked as she pointed at the Ken Liu book atop the stack on the counter. But as with these things, the mention of the book served as a kind of a litmus test because she was attracted to him.
“Yes,” Lam had said, his eyes narrowed upon hers in sudden interest. “But I’m reading it first. You will have to wait.”
Maria’s face fell in what she hoped was an expression of utter disappointment. Maria was not used to guile but she hoped she had been artful. “Oh well, that’s too bad. I was going to order it online anyway.”
“Or, you could wait for me to finish reading it,” Lam replied.
So many of these entanglements revolve around choice.
Maria could have walked home, and Jakob would have been the only one who awakened her hidden powers. Maria could have, but she did not.
“Sure,” Maria said with a slow smile, “that would be great, thanks. But would I be buying it or borrowing it?”
“Have dinner with me and we’ll both figure that out,” Lam answered, his eyebrows quirked in an expressive manner that she found charming that afternoon, but which would begin to grate in later days.
Lam’s home was an eclectic library with books lining even his bathroom and the narrow corridor between rooms. That first night, when he led her into his apartment, she had gasped in surprise and arousal at the sweet smell of old books and the chemical used to preserve them. Their first coupling was a hurried thing of mutual violence and urgency upon a desk with books roughly pushed aside. They left marks upon each other as parting gifts.
(Sex with Lam possessed none of the tentative sweetness of her unions with Jakob, but it was not entirely bereft of tenderness, one would hope.)
That first encounter led to various other dinners and meetings in Lam’s apartment above his shop. Maria delighted in getting to know the younger literary sorts who thronged Lam’s apartment: the architect who lived above a provision shop on Gat Lebuh Pantai, the chef who opened a fine dining restaurant in an old Chinese home on Carnavon Road, the pottery maker who lived in Lorong Toh Aka. Almost, she could have loved Lam and not felt guilty about inveigling herself into his life. His soul was as rutilated as her own, full of perversity tempered by streaks of intellectual brilliance.
More importantly, she was able to achieve enough post-coital detachment and consideration that she never feared she would forget to put his soul, a small, amber-coloured pulsating entity, back into his body. But the sweet broken purity of Jakob’s sad eyes haunted her enough that she pushed Lam away, instigating a series of fights that led to their eventual mutual separation.
(She couldn’t have known it would not be the only time they would break up. Nor the fact that every time they made up, the headiness of reconciliation would grow stronger and stronger.)
Months turned into years. Finally she had a lover who seemed to mark the last of her hope that she could have a relationship with these men. They were meant to be prey, not lovers, she told herself.
Giovanni was a visiting scholar from Venice who told her he loved the melancholy, poetic light in her eyes. At sixty-five, he possessed a desperate kind of ardour that far surpassed her younger lovers, as though he tried to recapture his youth with each mingling of their sweat-dewed flesh. On the night before he went on a boating adventure to the waters encircling the islets off Pulau Langkawi, Giovanni had plied Maria with Chianti and home-made bigoli in salsa.
“Maria, when I come back from my trip, I will have something important to ask you,” declared Giovanni expansively that last night in bed.
“I can hardly wait,” Maria said in a muted voice, wondering if she wanted to spend the rest of her days with this courtly scholar, who lived a gentleman’s life in a modest little apartment in Venice.
He was particularly energetic that final night, expelling his soul with such gusto that the pearl-coloured simulacra flew across the bedroom to land on a bookshelf. Exhausted and mildly panicked, Maria forgot about returning that luminous, excitable thing that bounced up and down on her bedside table to Giovanni’s body as he snored. Instead, she had burrowed into his arm with an air of comfortable familiarity, thinking that perhaps wedding Giovanni would not be so bad a thing. It would be nice to be a married Signora in Venice, she fancied, dreaming of a life she thought she could never have.
(A life far away from this island of our hopes, dreams, and desires.)
She woke up to breakfast on her dining table, next to a vase filled with tiger lilies. Giovanni’s simulacra sat beside the glass-encased butter, looking like a glass coffin. Maria shivered at the thought of Giovanni out there, soulless. She had read enough to find in that innocuous butter case an ominous foregrounding. Giovanni’s simulacrum-shaped soul paced the dining table before it fell backwards, simulating swimming and then drowning. As she watched, something broke little Giovanni apart, making a messy splatter of ectoplasm on her dining table before the little figure slowly re-assembled and looked at her with a strange pleading expression on its quickly reconstructed face. She swallowed her cry of horror and let the simulacra nestle on her open palm.
When the phone call came, she was not surprised.
She grieved in the weeks after, even if their dalliance had not lasted too long. She was the person called to identify his mangled remains, the one who had to notify his next of kin. She blamed herself for his death, for that one moment of comfort that led to her forgetfulness. Perhaps he would have had better balance if his soul had not been distracted in a remote location. He would still be alive.
Giovanni’s simulacra was particularly demanding and strong after the death of its host body. It would enlarge to human size. It became a spectral representation of the deceased and behaved almost like the demonic hantu raya that existed in frightened accounts and in sensationalistic newspapers, sold at five-foot-way stalls.
“Shrink,” Maria had told the simulacra more than once as it tried to embrace her, barely controlling her own muted terror. Finally chastened, Giovanni’s soul resigned itself to being a bedside table ornament and learned to scurry into the drawer whenever she had company over.
Sometimes, the tiny simulacra tussled and had drawer wrestling matches with the souls of the countless faceless men she brought to her bed in an attempt at oblivion, at making time stop, at feeling — something safe, something that did not make her feel she would be defiling lives. Sometimes, Giovanni’s simulacra watched as bits of energy fell from the bodies of men into her waiting skin, making it dewy, luminescent. Keeping her young and desirable.
As she approached the grim age of fifty, her exhaustion grew unbearable. Her skin and flesh felt rejuvenated by each encounter, but her own soul felt weighed down. She saw herself stopping at some point — if the magic would let her.
On the night of her fiftieth birthday, Maria craved a certainty that she had been seeking for nearly a decade. She waded into the waves, aware of the luminescent jellyfish that almost dance in the dimming light beneath the waves. She felt like she was almost inviting death every time she entered the water, but she knew what she wanted was some sort of communication. Some manner of certainty that would not come. The waters were not clean here but that did not bother her. Nor did the poisonous jellyfish. They had never stung her.
Perhaps the unseen ones pitied her that evening, for she was allowed a visitation.
“What are you seeking, daughter of my daughter?” asked that beloved, much-sought-after voice.
The waves coalesced into the form of her grandmother.
“I am not sure, Grandmama. I have never been sure. What is this . . . is it a gift or a curse?”
“Neither,” said her grandmother. “It is an inheritance. One that came from our home in Malacca. A long time ago when our ancestors came here from Portugal. When one of them married a Malay woman with a puaka laut ancestor. That union made us who we are. A family of fishermen and sea-witches who knew where the catch would be good. Who knew the secrets of the hidden world and of human souls. The water is in our veins, my dear.”
“Do you know everything, Grandmama?” asked Maria.
Her grandmother laughed. “No, not everything — but I do know you’ve found some very interesting ways to use your inheritance. Very interesting. I wish I’d been as enterprising when I was your age. Hmm, there was this man in the Portuguese Village who was quite dashing. It could have been so very sweet and tasty. But then, I was married to your grandfather, and he was a very holy man. He was the only man I knew. The only one that mattered.”
“Yes, he was . . . how . . .” Maria found herself thigh-deep into the waves as she approached her grandmother.
“You mean to ask, if we’re descended from water demons, how do we make lives with those who spend theirs in orison and devotion? I don’t know. We are mostly human, and I was as god-fearing as he was. Except when I needed to be brutal, to save my loved ones. You can be brutal too, Maria. Would you choose to do so?”
“I still regret the death of Giovanni due to my carelessness,” Maria said.
“Yes, and that is why I am here, love. It was not your fault. It was his fate. A fate he avoided for too long. That soul wanted to be with you.”
“What must I do with it now?” asked Maria.
“Release it into the ocean. Let the soul find peace. And as for you — what would you choose to do with your inheritance, love? There are so many things you could do with it. You could protect your loved ones. Or—”
“Or—” Maria looked at the face of one so beloved, and one near-forgotten.
“Or, you could find that sweet-souled man you never forgot and see if you can’t find a life like I did, playing by ear — dancing between darkness and light. It was good enough for me, after a fashion. Could it be good enough for you, my granddaughter who could never stop looking?”
“I do not know, Grandmama. I do not know.”
“Don’t wait too long to make that decision, love. Lives are not meant to be lived in limbo, as yours has been for far too long.”
The tide washed her with a force unusually strong back to the littered beach.
The very next day, Maria killed her first man. Or she could have. Nobody ever knows how to predict these things.
Or, she could have, if she wanted to. She could have drawn out his entrails as he lay begging at her feet. She had stalked him after she tasted his murderous intentions, so thick it awakened all of her senses. She was emboldened by her conversation with her dead grandmother, and the things she could do with her inheritance crowded her mind. Drunk on possibility, she followed him from the famous pickled nutmeg and mango stalls at the newly refurbished Chowrasta Market into Tamil Street where the nasi kandar owner stood outside his unassuming restaurant, hoping to lure tourists into the depths of a shop that had seen much better days. Somewhere in the back lanes close to Kimberley Street where hawkers were setting up their stalls for the evening, Maria pulled the soul of the murderous man from the back of his neck and watched him kneel in the shadows as the soul danced in the palm of her hand. He was a worse monster than she could ever be, she told herself.
The soul was filthy. Rancid. Full of pride in how he had defiled many women. Full of hunger and the need to commit more atrocities. She could have crushed that soul in the palm of her hand, even as she shuddered at her first knowing act of murder.
(These endings and life trajectories are always about choice more than they are about hope. These endings could be the death of hope, or the birth of it.)
She could have done this: she could have made the soul walk the man all the way to the police station and confess to his crimes. She could have left the soul in her pocket, along with the soul of Giovanni. She could have released both into the sea. It would have still been a death, but a slightly more lawful, slightly more merciful death.
Her life hinged on that choice — one that would have taken her into a shadowed world of vigilantism, where all hope was lost to her — but not for the ones she could have saved.
She could have released Giovanni’s soul into the sea before driving her car across Penang Bridge, to a church where Jakob prayed with his sister and children every Sunday. She could have almost been happy with that simplicity, couldn’t she?
We are all poised on the cusp of possibility with every choice that we make. Between hope and despair, between desire and action.
And so walks Maria, with two souls in her pocket, and dark secrets in her eyes, a power so strong, so intoxicating. She could imagine herself liberating so many women from predators.
And so walks Maria into a life that swung from option to option like a pendulum, into the choices her grandmother knew she had to make so she could leap from limbo to life, from the loss of hope, to the renewal of her purpose.
About the Author
Nin Harris is an author, poet, and tenured postcolonial Gothic scholar
who exists in a perpetual state of unheimlich. Nin writes Gothic fiction, cyberpunk, nerdcore post-apocalyptic fiction, planetary romance, and various other forms of hyphenated weird fiction. Nin’s publishing credits include Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and The Dark.
About the Narrator
Born and raised in Malaysia, Chang Yiun Yee is a recent university graduate that speaks four languages, a fact that is somehow shocking to everyone outside of Asia, while at home she’s considered “a disappointment to her family and cow” for not speaking another two more dialects.
When not getting passionate about media analysis, she can be found either drawing, playing computer games, yelling about Dungeons and Dragons with friends around the world, or working on her pet project, a melancholic post-apocalyptic gaslamp fantasy novel about a young god dealing with the consequences of his actions up close and personal.