In this Issue - Fiction

 

 

I was in a top-floor unit of a fifteen-storey apartment building with a view of nothing but identical apartment buildings, sitting on a living-room sofa with a Maltese puppy on my lap, folding and unfolding its left ear repeatedly, the dog gazing up at me expressionlessly as I gazed back at it. Before being on my lap, the dog had been lying on its stomach on the living room floor. The dog had not ended up on my lap of its own volition, because it was still too young to get up on the sofa without someone’s help. From the sofa, I had half-heartedly picked up the dog and placed it on my lap, gazed down at it for a moment and, as if I had suddenly thought of origami, I had begun folding and unfolding its ear, like I was doing origami. 

 

 

 

Kuala Lumpur. KL. Kala Lumpa or Kala Lampur to the white man, the Mat Sallehs. City of sinners and sex. Sodom and Gomorrah. It was 1998, and the city was the ‘party central’ of Asia. Of the world. Drugs had opened up the minds of this one-time placid society and bayed in a new revolution, in a time when people hungered for freedom from authoritarian politicians, from the police, from their mindless jobs, from themselves. 

 

 

 

Rumour had it that Fourth Great-Granny of Hou Village was dead, but no one dared to confirm the news. What if she wasn’t really dead? It would take just one rat to squeal, ‘Fourth Great-Granny, he said you were dead!’ and you can be sure she’d have his head on a plate. 

The Hou clan was the biggest in the eponymous village, boasting court-yard upon courtyard – and several candidates for the Highest Imperial Exams in their ancestry to boot – and though by the Qing dynasty the House of Hou was no longer what it had once been, its sway in the village remained unquestionable.

 

 

I was born at a strange hour. It was a Friday night. All was quiet in the village of Mihalpur and, I believe, within the small one-room hut, too. The threadbare curtains must have been closed. I am told that my mother never held me, and I suspect that she never looked into my face. A girl child. I can see her now, dark like me, her long hair matted with the sweat of labour, curled up in a corner on a hard, bare cot as tears leak down the sides of her face, limp with exhaustion and misery. That particular sequence of events is not such a mystery to me. I saw it happen many times, with other women. I was the silent witness...

 

 

Even when the stand was kicked out from under it, the marionette remained in place – with its hands and feet thrown up in mid-air. At the sight of this miracle, you’d expect that the onlookers would have jumped back in amazement. But aside from a few children and childlike adults, the crowd showed only polite appreciation and continued on their way. It must have been utterly devastating to the boy running the puppet show. For when people don’t even take a passing interest in the greatest of miracles, what is the poor miracle maker to do?

 

 

 

It was a wonder how the bird got in, considering that the shaft was covered with a special bird mesh. It could be inferred that the pigeon had been looking for a safe place to lay her eggs and, in her quest for childbearing privacy, had torn through the mesh. 

The bird was noisy. It cooed without pause, its cooing growing louder with every passing minute.

 

 

It was important that the prostitute be foreign, ideally newly arrived, not conversant in Japanese. Shimoyama wished to keep talk to a minimum. Furthermore, a foreigner would have more of an enterprising nature – or perhaps, as he was coldly aware, be economically deprived of choice – to agree to the service he desired. 

 

 

Jack Riley liked Manila on his two navy tours. First, he stays at the Seamen’s Mission, but then gets wise to where things are really happening. He hangs out at Ed Mitchell’s Rhonda Grill, swings by a hole-in-the-wall called Tom’s Dixie Kitchen that cooks tender steaks and sells imported Scotch for nine pesos a shot. He laps up the scene at the Metro Garden and Grill Ballroom, watching the navy boys of the United States Asiatic Fleet drinking iced Pabst. On Christmas Day, the joints round Manila Bay and the Metro are a sea of white hats. It seems those boys can’t spend their wages fast enough – booze, girls, dope. 

 

 

Chan Lai-tai tugged at her skirt belt as she readied herself for work. No way to cinch it tighter. Should losing only five pounds make such a difference?

Xiong would repay her today. He had brought it up this morning, the only thing he said after kissing her, just before dashing out to catch the early train to Guangzhou. Never time to make love when he was in a hurry. Did he remember his keys? He’d left a set in Guangzhou last trip, and she’d had to scramble to make him a new one. So forgetful! But that wasn’t important because something else nagged. What?

 

 

 

This story has a happy ending, but first Ye-lim must crawl on her belly through a swamp of icy mud. The mud is viscous and sucking, calling her to join the grave of those who came to this place before her. There are bones: a femur here, shards of what may be skull there. Human or animal, she can’t tell about the skull shards. She finds a tooth, its enamel yellowed like an old corn kernel, embedded in the muck that squelches between her raw fingers. It reminds her of the teeth on the man – a soldier – who shattered her father’s body...

 

 

 

Aunty Sumana’s Flushing seethed with thieves. The stores along Union Street robbed her blind on calling cards, the ladies outside Macy’s nearly filched her purse while trying to sell her a worse-looking one. The chicken-over-rice guys diddled her out of fair portions. Men lurked in the shadows, ready to murder her in cold blood and run away with her cane. Flushing mirrored Gotham City before Batman, Bombay in the days of Varadarajan, the Tamil gangster. The upshot was that Meera had resigned to fetching her aunt from the subway station.