On her anniversary, Ah Lee watched an aunt trip on a nail and die.
A death meant vampire form for the denizens of the house at the end of the road. Ah Lee was sowing the cassava when she heard the cry and her nose filled not with the sense-memory of tapioca she had been straining for, wistfully, but with blood, shockingly old. Fresh meat tasted good, she knew, but age had never touched her pimple-prone body. She had never really thought about whether her aunts would smell tasty.
Ah Ma did not. So it was with some indignation that Ah Lee hacked through the bugs and crouched by her twitching leg. "Second time this week or not?" said Ah Lee, shocking Ah Ma. All good. She could be so angry the mere feeling would lift her off the ground, like a cushion of offended sensibilities.
"Third, girl," Ah Ma said. She did not have the strength to get up. Her ankle wriggled disconsolately then flopped back into the grass like a sunning lizard, little flaps of skin bulging in the afternoon breeze. "Why are you still talking? Carry me in." She eyed Ah Lee's hands, where not all the decorative red smudges were Ah Ma's fault. "Maybe you will lie down also."
"Or we will both die," Ah Lee muttered. Ah Ma was too proper to laugh, but Ah Lee saw the curve of her mouth. When she was not a dear old woman—and Ah Lee always marveled at Ah Ma's self-control while she was transformed, as Ah Lee would have her teeth clamped on every arteried boy within miles if she were now a vampire—Ah Ma never showed her teeth or tongue. She just used her death-smoothed skin and her hair, tangled and muddy as a swamp, to scare people to death. Only when she was telling you off, canyons of wrinkles all over her human face, would she open her mouth to regale you with scary stories.
"No respect these days." This sentence fought for favorite with "You have done your Add Maths, have you? No good man will marry you otherwise," in Ah Ma's vocabulary. "I asked you to take me in only, not complain about it." She squinted. "Quick. The neighbors will come, and they should not see my stomach hanging out like yu char kuay."
"Those are your intestines," said Ah Lee, but what difference did it make? Ah Ma ate even the gall bladder and told you how picky you were for not wanting that lumpy bitterness clogging your throat. She lectured about everything, and always found more chores for Ah Lee to do even while lying 23 hours a day on her bed. Ah Lee thought that if Ah Ma had had a modern education, she would be a professor. With three hundred students to terrorize even Ah Ma wouldn't have time to tell Ah Lee anything.
Tua Kim, that aproned tower of practicality, met them in the doorway. Ah Lee had only to plop down. The aunts descended. Ji Ee cursorily checked Ah Lee's hands, pinched the iron out of Ah Ma with her instrumentalist's fingers and wrapped her in enough bandages and sympathy for Ah Lee to slip back outside. The sky was still bright, the day transfixed with its own radiance. No monkeys, no gossiping neighbors. No aunts. She was free to concoct her own tales, then, weaving her recollections of her first boy (fading as they were, those clumsy nose-bumps melting away like tapioca) with Ridzual's face, his brand of rebellious legs and swallowing throat. I will be your tomyam, she imagined herself saying, and you will want to eat me alive halal or no—
Except that was why they would not last, her and Ridzual. Food was a touchy topic for vampires.
"You," someone yelled from inside. "Come!"
Ah Lee shuddered. One nail and she had to hunt for Ah Ma's compassion for the entire month.
Is it fair to want to nail Ridzual? Maybe it would make him pretty. If I were bedridden in the house on the anniversary of my death by a nail, I would use it on him and see whether he kissed any better, meh.
But I save the biggest nail for someone else.
"Nothing here to do," said Ah Ma. "I can smell the man from the fish market through our window. Close, but so far."
Ah Lee briefly had the same thought about the door. If she offered Ah Ma more water, perhaps...
"Cannot be useless," said Ah Ma. "There's nothing worse for women."
"Wah, you will be fine soon," Aunty Girl said. She and Ah Lee exchanged one careful look. "Why not rest now?"
Got more activity now than usual, Ah Lee thought. By the shiver of Aunty Girl's eyelid she thought she was thinking the same thing: while the aunts actually born in the same half-century as Ah Lee went out and lived the vampire version of a normal life, like some inverted drama, Ah Ma and Ah Chor talked about their past lives. They had set up some kind of vegetable tableaux across Ah Ma's bed. Ah Ma had spent the last half hour constructing her family tree with tauge sprouts. Six first cousins. An entire palmful of second cousins, reduced to one-eyed wrinkled faces made out of beans. Ah Lee gave silent thanks that most of her relatives had moved away from Lubuk Udang, or had otherwise failed whatever forsaken test chose them for undead status. She could have had thirty aunts instead of six.
"There are no days to waste," said Ah Ma. "Why are you still here? You got nothing to do, is it?"
"Ah Ma," Ah Lee said. "You told me, you do Chemistry after you make some time for your grandmother."
"But now you are not doing anything," she retorted, even more reasonably. Her fingers skitted across the quilt as if to demonstrate the degree of activeness Ah Lee should be engaging in. Some threads in the weave had already been scraped raw, the dye rubbed off to reveal its pink innards. "See lah, your feet shrivel because you don't move around. I'm not alive, you are. You should go be happy."
"OK, OK," she said, and ran.
But an hour later she was listening to the sagas of her third cousins twice removed again.
"Ah Ma," she asked, in the midst of some anecdote involving a rotten mango and a soldier. She had taken every opportunity to nap in between sections, letting the familiar voice soothe her to stillness like the afternoon light, but she was now truly lost in the narrative. "Why are you telling me this?"
Even Tua Kim looked up at that, then. Her neck moved in one sharp elegant shake. Someone continued chopping in the kitchen, having not yet scented the scent of Ah Lee "learning those horrible habits from that boy", as Ah Chor had said upon the last snoop of her diary. They would come. She already had enough aunts' imperious eyes on her for breaking the cardinal rule: do not interrupt a Telling.
"Ah, so you will live a good life, understand?"
"There's—" she had to tease out that treacherous feeling. "What do I do?"
Tua Kim took her hand, probably as reassurance, but she was only reminded of how soft and lax the aunt's skin was compared to hers, how very distant their lives had been from hers before they adopted her. The distance, essentially, from the orchard to the moon. Or the distance from one human boy to one curdled vampire who could never stay in his orbit. Forty years.
"We took you home," said Ah Ma. As though it was obvious. "You live. Or will I read, dear di-a-ry, I wrote nothing for this year, I am dead and I cannot say nothing?"
"You made me," she said, "you—just took me, from my deathbed. You didn't ask."
Ah Lee swore after the pregnancy that her eyes would never go wet and bruised again, but she could feel it coming as you could feel rain the moment before the clouds broke open. She forced her face to settle itself, but the aunts were staring at her and they could see the storm, she thought; she shook off Tua Kim's hand and slid out, trying not to look at the tentative whiteness of her wrist where it had rested.
Ji Ee came for her. She waited just outside the doorway, not even opening the door where Ah Lee had narrowed it to a crack of moonlight seeping in—that was what they did in serials, she thought. The kind of delirious adventure she had wanted with her first boy when she took him to the forest. That rationale sat better with her than the idea that an aunt would come for her and kiss her better as they had all throughout her first life.
The silence glutted itself on the tension going through the doorway. Ah Lee had left the room with her back straight and her mind justified. She would not slink back.
So Ji Ee waited outside, her face quiet and untelling.
At last Ah Lee's curiosity wrestled her righteousness down. "What lah," she asked, trying to look as if she were not at all interested.
"I work in the hospital," Ji Ee said, and took her to the car, down the dark empty streets, down the dim empty corridors of the place where she had died. She spoke as they drove wearing their human faces, more words than Ah Lee could ever comprehend her saying, until she slid a key into a door lock and the snick of it cut her words mid-sentence. She opened the door slowly, as if to let only a little bit of the antiseptic hospital air in at a time.
There was a woman there.
Her hands were cold and clammy, her eyes closed, and her thighs gracefully covered by a white sheet, and Ji Ee nodded to herself while Ah Lee stared and stared and stared. There was no one else in the room. Ah Lee thought of all the aunts crowded around Ah Ma.
"You understand?" Ji Ee asked. "Why we want you with us?"
Today Aunty Girl admitted she has guanxi with someone in serials. So I will go with her next week to the studio. She said they have a place for me talking about women. About vampires, except that I can't actually say pontianak or vampire, she said.
Ridzual tells me be grateful my aunts are so old. Oi, so many of you to choose from, he said. But they will still go for the youngest and prettiest to tell the whole country about those who shouldn't die. So it's your job, har.