A tiny car pulled off the expressway, made a big slow turn, and crawled up the slope to where we were sitting. A man got out with a folder tucked under his arm.
“Are your mom and dad in?” he asked.
“Yeah,” said Saw Ai.
He said he was from a human rights group. He said he could help us. Saw Ai yelled for her mom, while I sat on an empty oil drum and studied him. He was maybe thirty-something, with the palest skin and eyes so big they almost popped out of their sockets.
I was not going to talk to a stranger, but this stranger kept asking me questions. “What’s your name? Are you two sisters? No? Then you must be neighbors? Classmates?”
It was annoying. I didn’t even want to look at him anymore; his goldfish eyes creeped me out. They didn’t get any smaller when he smiled, as if they had been surgically fixed like that. I went back to flicking through a fashion magazine and Saw Ai’s dad came rushing out to take the visitor inside, leaving me and Saw Ai alone in the yard, staring down the slope.
The slope was covered in weeds and the wire netting hadn’t gone up yet, so anyone could just roll down to the expressway and lie there in the scrub alongside it, listening to car wheels zip past their fingers.
We usually hung around outside in the evenings. It was too hot indoors and Saw Ai didn’t want me to see her big sister, who was usually lying on the sofa. Her mom never asked if I wanted something to eat. There was never any food in the house for her to offer; no cookies, no cake. Though Saw Ai did always bring me ice water from the fridge.
There was a huge billboard advertising cars down by the road, lit up in dazzling neon. Real cars inched along the bottom of the slope like glowworms. Amid the lights and engine noise, Saw Ai talked enthusiastically about her plans for the future.
“I’m going to be a model in Paris, England, and America.”
She lay back on the bench, shook off her shoes, and pointed her toes, showing off the pretty curve of her calves. She had long hair, long legs, big eyes. It was just a shame she was so dark, like a Malay or an Indian.
“You don’t even know the Western alphabet.”
“Top models have to speak English. You have to go to university, and ideally take art and dance classes.”
That was what the magazines said.
It was a sore point for Saw Ai. She was failing every subject. She said that sooner or later she was going to pack up her schoolbooks with all the old posters and magazines and go to trade them in.
The old posters and magazines in Saw Ai’s house fascinated me. Her family had all kinds of old papers that no one else’s family wanted and I was always making her take them out to show me.
We continued sitting outside, glasses of ice water on the ground beside us. I took a sip now and then as I worked through my magazine.
“This skirt is really classy.”
My fingers stroked the glossy pages, lingering over the photos of clothes. I told Saw Ai one of my own plans: I’d carry on my parents’ profession, but I wasn’t going to stick around and do it in our town. I was going to move to a big city and be a fashion designer.
When Saw Ai’s sister burst out of the house, I still had half my ice water left. I snatched up the glass to stop her kicking it over. Saw Ai’s mom stood by the front door, yelling, “It’s just water! What’s the point of stealing that? You come back here!”
They had found a stash of moldy sweets and bread by the sister’s bed. Now she was throwing a tantrum, lumbering down the front steps in search of her food, which wasn’t even edible anymore. Saw Ai’s dad grabbed her and hauled her back inside, while the goldfish man watched from the doorway. Saw Ai rolled off the bench and stood up, curling her shoulders like an angry cat, glaring at him.
He smiled weakly but she didn’t smile back. Her sister went back inside, crying. I could hear her saying, “I hate you all!”
Saw Ai’s dad said goodbye to the goldfish man at the bottom of the steps.
We stayed out in the dark for ages, keeping very quiet, a thin layer of water still left in our glasses. I couldn’t drink anymore.
There was no wire netting yet to separate us from the expressway, and even if there had been, it wouldn’t have changed how the night sounded—car horns, motorbikes, the squeal of brakes, the noises crisscrossing like waves. The sister’s crying got louder, as if her finger had been bitten by a rat, until they must have been able to hear her from streets away. A few nearby houses still had lights on, including mine. I could even see my mom, peering out through a gap in the curtains.
It was time for me to go home, but Saw Ai didn’t want me to leave. At least, not until her mom opened the door and screamed, I’m not sure whether to me or to Saw Ai, “What the hell are you up to out there? You want one of them to rape you too?”
* * *
Pretty much everyone knew Saw Ai’s family had problems. They were waiting for her to feel like talking about it. Of course they could guess, speculating about the kinds of things that might be going on behind closed doors, and the secrets she wouldn’t, or maybe couldn’t, tell. But no one could ask her and, anyway, exams were always more important. We had nine classes every day, were busy taking notes, busy doing calculus, busy busy busy.
In the break between classes, Saw Ai rushed through her homework. She put my finished map underneath her paper and traced over its faint outline to draw another map of Africa. Then she divided it into lots of little sections, making some of them desert, some of them bushland, some of them savannah with a few scattered trees.
Her hand was shaky, so her coastline wobbled.
I offered her a cookie and she immediately grabbed it, then another, cramming them into her mouth while she worked. She probably hadn’t had breakfast; her sister had probably cleaned out the kitchen. We had two minutes left before the bell for the next class, but Saw Ai was still methodically filling in her grasslands with blades of grass.
The geography teacher entered the classroom and we all smelled his stinking cigarette breath. He called us up one at a time to stand next to him and watch him correct our work. If he found even one mistake, he would make the girl in question squat halfway down and then brush his fingers lightly back and forth across the back of her neck, until the tickling became unbearable.
When it was Saw Ai’s turn, I could hardly look. Her Europe page was empty. So were the pages for India, South America, North America. All she had managed was Africa. Her class notes were so scattered that they weren’t even full sentences; in some classes, she had only jotted down a couple of lines. We were in high school now, where all the textbooks used the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet. Saw Ai’s Malay and English were terrible, and she never understood what the teachers were saying.
“I don’t believe it! Boys are bad enough, but you’re even worse. You want me to treat you like a boy, is that it? Shall I punish you like one too?”
His finger hovered over the place where her neck joined her shoulders, making her squirm. She was in a half-squat, clearly suffering. This was his worst punishment for girls, it happened every time: he tickled us until we had to laugh, when what we really wanted was to cry.
At that age, I still believed the things my mom told me, and when I upset her she told me scary things. If I came home after ten at night, she said, “I’ll marry you off to a Malay!” Saw Ai’s mum called Malays “o’soso ghosts” because she said they were dark and creepy. I half agreed. The geography teacher was an example. We were almost sure he was a pervert, but he insisted his method was better than whipping us. Weren’t they not supposed to touch us? We were fourteen now, after all.
“Do you understand what I’m saying? Huh? Why don’t you answer? What’s going on in your brain?”
He flipped through Saw Ai’s notes, listing all her mistakes, while the rest of us sat in silence. It was such a bad day. We were in the classroom at the end of the ground-floor hallway, so there was no chance of someone passing by inside, and the neatly-planted bushes outside the window were suffocatingly thick.
Luckily the boys were still out there.
The boys weren’t tickled as a punishment; they were made to stand. They were standing in the bushes with their textbooks over their heads to keep off the sun, which made them look like the little men with graduate caps on Boshi brand ink pots.
One gross boy waved until he had my attention, then hugged his arms around his chest and mouthed, “I love you, I love you.”
I propped up my geography textbook so that it covered my face. He was such an idiot that it made me want to laugh. Then I heard the teacher say to Saw Ai, “Your sister was in 3E, you’re in 2E, both bottom of the class. Isn’t your dad ashamed? Your sister dropped out and you don’t feel like studying either, is that it?”
Saw Ai spun around and marched out of the room, notebook in hand, heading into the bushes with the boys. They started yelling, and the gross one who’d just been saying he loved me had a change of heart and whistled at Saw Ai instead.
* * *
“Saw Ai, don’t be stupid. What are you doing?”
Saw Ai emptied the textbooks in her schoolbag onto an old newspaper, then piled a stack of newspapers on top, until her history, Chinese language, and math books were completely buried. The next day, the day after that, the day after the day after that, more and more newspapers and magazines would come to join the pile, covering Saw Ai’s books until no one would know they were there.
“You want to end up like your mom, selling ice water until you get married?”
“Whatever, I’m not school material.”
Saw Ai nestled into another stack of papers, behind a big pile of wood. Her sister was inside and poked her head over the windowsill to watch us, her hair so messy that she looked like a hedgehog.
“Give me food, give me, give me,” she said.
She had a long scar on her face, running across her fat cheeks like the Nile.
“‘Shut up!” Saw Ai yelled back, struggling to drag an old wooden bed frame over to the window, to block her sister’s face. As soon as she got it there, her sister found a gap in the wood and continued to stare at us with her huge eyes. We walked off to the other side of the house, where there were more newspapers and piles of wood, along with sacks of lime, a gas barrel, and a pair of mud-caked trousers.
I felt sick. I remembered the day her sister was found.
She had been stripped naked and thrown into the gutter, her whole face covered in blood. A lot of people were gathered around her but most of them were just looking: she didn’t even have a sheet of newspaper over her. Life was very stressful that month. My mom had to escort me to school, and every day the newspapers and TV channels ran all kinds of rape and murder stories. The most famous one was about a female architect from America, who was burned to death in a sewer pipe by the side of the expressway, not so far from our house. The police were all out looking for the culprit. Saw Ai’s sister’s case was mentioned in a tiny square at the bottom of the local paper, but there was no photo and she wasn’t named. My cousin said it was a shame. “I heard she was pretty,” she said. “I want to see how pretty she was.”
Saw Ai’s sister kept banging on the window frame in protest.
“Just ignore her,” said Saw Ai.
Saw Ai was sitting on a fruit box now, looking furious, arms crossed. I peeled strips of wood off the box, thinking that if I peeled off long enough strips then maybe I could twist them into a rope like people used to do in the olden days. The narrow road up the slope was covered in muddy footprints and tracks from bike wheels. The air smelled like car exhaust. We could hear the metallic shriek of the welding yard in the distance, mixed with the rap of a spoon against a metal window bar, both sounds cutting sharply across the dull roar of the traffic.
“Aren’t you being a bit mean?”
“She’s not hungry. You don’t know how many things she’s eaten. And when she doesn’t find any, she gets violent!”
Her sister started swearing at us, using really filthy words about my mom and dad. My arms were breaking out in little bumps from mosquito bites. It was quite a lot to take. I started to think of really sad things, for example that one day maybe I wouldn’t be able to come round and see Saw Ai anymore. Saw Ai’s brains were like cotton fluff—she didn’t know why rain came from the sky, or why at the North Pole and South Pole it was night for half a year and day for the other half. But neither of us could understand why a person would suddenly become so greedy. Saw Ai’s dad had to store their food in places where her sister couldn’t find it. They had attached an extension cable and moved the fridge into the woodshed on the other side of the house.
“Maybe one day she’ll eat so much her stomach explodes,” I said.
“Great, then we can stop spending money on doctors,” said Saw Ai, closing her eyes.
Sunlight fell on her eyelids, casting the shadow of her lashes onto her cheeks.
* * *
Saw Ai locked the door bolt in place and jumped down the front steps with the key chain dangling from her hand, shaking it in a rhythm, like one of the bells that count the beat in folk dances. Rays of sun broke through the clouds, landing in a bright halo on her hair. Her skin was dark and shiny with sweat, like the skin of the boys at school who had to stand in the sun every day. She had successfully locked her sister inside the house; the grownups were out, so she had to deal with the fat-pig ox-woman all by herself.
“What do you think I’ll be when I grow up?”
“Nothing,” I said, trying to scare her. “You’ll have to be a prostitute.”
That’s what my mom said to me: that if I didn’t study I’d have to sell my ass. It’s what all the grownups said.
Saw Ai went into the woodshed and took a bottle of water out of the fridge. She drank a big gulp, then passed it to me. We worked together to stack up wooden crates, pushing them over toward the window, which we opened to let the breeze in. The traffic on the expressway provided fuzzy ambient noise. Light bored in through cracks in the wood and the holes left by nails, making a kind of starry stage backdrop. An old calendar was pasted onto the zinc wall opposite, the bodies of the featured female celebrities distorted by ripples in the sheeting. Saw Ai did a sexy catwalk across the fruit crates; my job was to raise the curtain. Her family’s washing hung from a nylon clothesline across the room and provided a ready-made curtain for us, a curtain that came in all the colors of the rainbow, in every shape and size.
I was the host, reading out quotes from the fashion magazines: “Here comes our new line for autumn! Stand out from the crowd, create a new you . . . Pair this tasseled shawl in coffee-colored wool with a long linen slit skirt for a romantic, bohemian look.”
Saw Ai narrowed her eyes and sashayed across the stage. When she waved, her spread fingers looked ready to shoot beams of light, and I clapped loudly. It was amazing. The messy junk transformed into our rapt audience. We were no longer in a moldy shed with a year-round leak, we were at some big European fashion show whose name we couldn’t pronounce. I picked up a newspaper and folded it into pleats, then started to play it like an accordion. Each time the curtain went back, we skipped to a different season, or jetted across the Atlantic Ocean to stroll the streets of New York.
Saw Ai was in heaven. She said she was definitely going to be a model. She started to dance. We were both wearing vest tops and jean shorts. Saw Ai shook her long, shapely legs, showing me how I ought to dance on Saturday nights, and I laughed until I could hardly breathe.
She spun around and around. If the boys from our class had appeared at the window to gawp at us and yell stuff, we wouldn’t even have cared. What could they have said? “Darlings, you can really shake it!” or “Hey, darling, over here! Don’t ignore me, you’re breaking my heart!”
No boys appeared, but the goldfish man did. The gross goldfish man came and ruined our fun. He stood behind the woodshed window watching us, laughing so hard it looked like his eyes were really going to pop out of his head. He clapped and said, “Bravo, bravo!”
We didn’t feel like dancing after that. He scared us. I felt like I was seeing a ghost. We watched dumbly as he went round and opened the shed door; we’d forgotten to lock it. We started to scream. I called him a pervert, and Saw Ai was so high-pitched she could have shaken the roof off.
He stood there looking upset. His face was very red and his hands were clenched.
“Who do you think I am? You think I’m a bad guy?”
He dodged the water bottle I threw at him. When he turned back to face us, he seemed really angry.
“Are there no adults here? This is no good at all. It’s dangerous. I need to have words with your dad, leaving two girls at home by themselves is incredibly risky. Listen to me: when there’s no adult around, you cannot play here. This is not a safe place.”
What were we supposed to do? We weren’t supposed to trust strangers, but he wasn’t exactly a stranger. He had a big hard-backed folder under his arm and when we ran out of the shed we knocked it to the ground. The papers inside scattered like leaves. He chased around behind us but it was no use, the wind blew them away. Still, after a couple more steps he caught up with me.
I kicked him as hard as I could. All of a sudden I wasn’t fourteen anymore, old enough to be dating; I was a ten-year-old, or maybe an even younger child—a seven-year-old who bit people.
“Listen to me, you can’t carry on like this forever. Let me in to have a little chat with your big sister. There have been so many victims, many many many, you need to stick together, stand up, have the courage to speak out.”
A few photos fluttered past my chest, then fell into the mud.
“They were all innocent girls and none of the cases have been solved. The victims are dead, so they can’t help us catch the bad guys. And we can’t let the bad guys get away with it, can we?”
He talked faster and faster and his eyes were all red, as if his puffy goldfish eye sockets were going to spurt tears at any moment. Maybe his sadness was real, but I was so scared I was screaming for my life.
He climbed frantically into his car and then was gone, off like a startled animal.
I wasn’t being brave at all, but Saw Ai’s sister was a living example of how things could go wrong. I didn’t believe a word of the goldfish man’s stupid speech. Maybe he just wanted to listen to us scream.
We didn’t like him, but his photos were thrilling. In one, a policeman was pulling a totally naked woman out of a freezer. The woman’s hands were tied behind her back. Each picture was like a comic strip, showing us crime scenes in different settings, from different angles. In one photo, a bruised purple face hung crookedly from its neck, facing us, and we had the feeling that this woman wasn’t a person anymore, just frozen flesh and bones. The back of the door and all the walls were splattered with blood, and a group of policemen was there investigating. Unless they weren’t; unless he just invited them there to pretend they were.
We couldn’t figure out who he was. Did he just want to be our friend? Or was he some weirdo who wanted to scare us? His dropped folder was full of papers, but we couldn’t understand them because they were in English and covered in confusing diagrams. We got down on our knees and tried to collect all the photos instead.
The wind was strong that day and blew the photos so far that we had to go down into the bushes at the bottom of the slope to find them.
© Ho Sok Fong. Translation © 2021 by Natascha Bruce. All rights reserved.