The world was gentler to children when we were young. My younger brother Kang and I grew up with a pack of other children in a hilly estate walled in by vast, straight-trunked saraca trees, their spreading crowns painting the dipping roads with mottled shade, their hard nuts menacing any unsuspecting parked cars with dents. Those proud guardians are gone now, replaced by waxy, bright green palms that damage no cars and shed easy-to-clear fronds, which grow no higher than the boxy houses and give no shade. Walking outside in the afternoon has become an experience in broiling gently. In Singapore, the old gives way ever efficiently to the new.
I don’t remember the names of the children we grew up with. We were closest to three brothers. They were our neighbours from a house across the road, and the fact that I was a girl mattered nothing to them. We looked like siblings—sun-baked kids, short black hair, stuffed into washable shirts and shorts and slippers that were often returned muddy. In a childhood without cellphones we amused ourselves with the rest of the world.
The oldest boy, closest to my age, was obsessed with catching snakehead, although he had never caught any. The ikan toman are aggressive, air-breathing freshwater fish, white-bellied and black-scaled, typically massive, long and sleek like torpedoes, too cunning for children. We made up names for the larger ones, which often only showed themselves as visible shadows in their favourite spots, ignoring our bait. The sun burned us brown as we spent our after-school hours cycling out of our estate to our fishing spot, past the terraced shophouses snarled with traffic from late lunchers hungry for roti, past the old military checkpoint, through the sprawling grounds that had once been part of a British airbase.
Past the airfield was a stretch of dense forest that eventually ebbed out closer to the new golf courses that sat at the end of the airbase’s road. We used to turn out here, and park our bikes off the road, slip-sliding down the grassy flank beside the little concrete bridge with nets and tackle. The old canal snaked out of the forest and around it, thickly corseted with high grass on both flanks, and it always smelled of mud and grass and the acrid warm rot of open drains, its murky water rife with long-legged bugs, skating over its sluggish surface. Kang was fascinated with these. Ignoring the nets and tackle, he would squat by the edge of the muddy canal and watch the bugs dart back and forth, their tiny feet pressing little indents into the water’s surface, as though they were walking on cloth. The rest of us would unpack. We had two fishing rods between five of us and two nets. One was laughably small and normally did minimal duty as a remover of dead fish from Kang’s aquarium at home, and the other was a butterfly net experiencing a second life that it wasn’t made for. We had one pail that always smelled of washing liquid, having been ‘borrowed’ from the laundry equipment. Our bait was whatever we could steal off our kitchens in the morning.
Fishing for snakehead usually involved the oldest boy casting first, dunking his bait close to the thickened shadows under the bridge, while the other two brothers and I would play a solemn elimination game of paper-stone-scissors to decide who got which nets and who got the coveted second rod. Usually, I won, and would cast further upstream, while whoever lost would try their luck netting the smaller fish that dashed in black flickers close to the shore. We kept an eye out for bubble breaks on the water’s surface, the telltale sign of a snakehead surfacing for air. Some days all we saw was the occasional deep shadow, gliding downstream, imperiously disdainful of our bait. Some days we caught nothing. It didn’t matter at first. Catching snakehead had never actually been the point of coming here to fish, and whatever we caught was brought home in triumph to be eaten.
I remember the day the oldest boy hooked a snakehead. By its shadow and the sudden violent churn we knew it was Big Mother, one of the biggest of the snakeheads. The fight was over quickly. With an abrupt jerk Big Mother broke the line, the pole going slack as a jagged fin briefly sliced up over the water’s surface, and then it was gone as the rest of us watched, helpless and open-mouthed. We had touched the grail and it had escaped us.
Shock was replaced quickly by explosive glee. “Wow!” The middle boy darted up back to the road, shading his eyes as he peered downstream. “It’s gone already!”
“Snapped the line, just like that.” Kang loved the obvious. “Snapped it.”
“What bait were you using, the shrimp?” I was already eagerly reeling mine in, the sodden bread at the end of my hook sadly untouched. The youngest and I rooted excitedly in the pail, nets forgotten as we baited my hook with shrimp. Only when I cast again did we realize that the oldest boy had been silent all this time, glaring at the bridge, his jaw set. His hand was clenched tight on the rod, and his eyes were hungry and dark and hard.
“So close!” He threw the rod on the grass. “Ai-i-i, we should’ve known that the line wasn’t strong enough.”
The middle boy slid back down the slope. “We could get a better line from Uncle Tommy.”
The oldest boy snarled. “Too far away.”
Our collective joy was fading quickly, as bewilderment leached in. I exchanged glances with the youngest and with Kang. “Rope?” I said, uncertain, trying to sound helpful. “I don’t think we can get into the golf course though. The security guard might not help.”
“We can come back with Uncle Tommy’s line some other day,” the youngest chimed in, but the oldest boy was scrambling angrily back up the slope and onto his bike, pedalling away back down the road without another word. We watched him go, frozen with astonishment that unpacked gradually into nervous laughter and the uncomfortable sourness of an afternoon spoiled. Muddling about, we stayed but half an hour more, catching nothing, and packed up guiltily. The rod with its broken line was left for last.
“Is he going to be okay?” I asked the middle boy, disoriented by my sudden role as the leader by default.
“I guess,” said the middle boy, blinking. “He’s probably just disappointed, right?”
“He’ll get over it,” said the youngest, forever the most optimistic. “Maybe he just had a bad day.” It was worse than that, but right then, flustered by circumstance and sticky from the afternoon sun, we preferred our easy answers.
“The problem,” said the oldest boy, outside our gate in the late evening, consulting me leader-to-leader as we usually did, “isn’t just the line. It’s the time. We’ve never hooked snakehead before until now. It was very cloudy day. Darker than usual.” The rest clustered around, earnest spectators, clearly relieved that everything seemed normal again.
“Maybe it was the bait.” I had been quietly hoarding shrimp in the freezer for the last two days.
“We’ve used shrimp before.”
“Not a lot of it,” I countered, but half-heartedly. “What do you mean, time?”
“We have to start fishing at night. Or in the late evening. That’s when fish like snakehead and the kim bak lor get hungry.” The older boy smiled, feverish with conviction, his eyes bright, a believer. “I asked around.”
“Who told you that?” Kang asked, forever interested in the scientific method of anything.
“Our uncle,” said the middle boy, and we accepted this as gospel. The boys’ uncle lived down the road, a fisherman with decades under his belt.
“We’re going to try tonight. After dinner. You guys in?” the older boy asked.
Our parents would have a shitfit. “Mum will say no,” Kang said.
“She’ll be okay with it, if she thinks we’re just having a stayover, and it’s Saturday tomorrow,” I said.
“What about sneaking out the bait and the bikes and stuff?”
“We’ll just tell her that we’re going to go fishing early in the morning.” I turned back to the boys. “We’re in. I’ve got more shrimp. You have the better line?”
“Yah. Enough for yours, too. And we borrowed our uncle’s favourite rods. He said that he’s now willing to trust us with them, since we had the skill to hook a snakehead. See you guys tonight.”
After some hurried consultation with the middle boy, Kang and I also packed torchlights, spare batteries, bottled water, and a small tin of biscuits. The trip out to the canal felt new. Night had replaced all our landmarks with inverted simulacra. The shophouse road was still packed with cars nosing desperately into any form of parking. Steel-and-plastic fold-out tables sat crowded with people harsh-lit from street lamps, laden with curry and oily golden roti. We threaded through the gridlocked cars and pedalled on. Past the shophouse district, the roads grew darker and darker, the row of houses beyond the main street stolen away by shadow, leaving only faint outlines and the occasional lit window. I felt like a fish, darting from one pool of safe yellow street light to another, holding my breath in between. The military checkpoint was manned at night by men mottled in dull fatigues. They looked intimidating until we got close and noticed that they were just about children as well, older boys, with maybe five or six years on our ages, working through National Service. They stared at us, surprised, glanced at the tackle and rods, then shrugged and waved us through.
Past the checkpoint, street lamps dotted the road at long intervals. The colonial houses were invisible in the dark, as was the air base. We were silent, clustered together, made nervous by newness, sweating, even though the night was cool. We had descended past the Gate into deih yuhk, it seemed, to the threshold of the first Court of Hell, which balanced life and death and fortune. We were rushing to meet the Yama King. The forest stretch felt like a final warning, crowding in far closer to the road than it did by day, and as we cycled on, something small and dark shot across the road, only a few feet away from the oldest boy.
I cut off my scream by clapping my palm across my mouth, swerving wildly to a stop. Beside me, the youngest wobbled on his bike and nearly fell sideways with a yelp. We stopped in a tangle of bikes and breathless tension, while the oldest boy glanced around and turned back to me, annoyed. “It was just a monkey.”
“Sorry.” I was abruptly angry with myself, red-faced. Screaming like a little girl. “Sorry.”
“I got a shock too,” said the middle boy, always the mediator. I refused to be consoled. We made it to the canal in stilted silence.
I hadn’t noticed before, but the canal sat awkwardly in the dark zone between one street lamp and the next. The bridge wasn’t fully dark, but the grassy banks were submerged in shadow, and the water was a black stain inked down from the trees and under concrete and away into the dark. We left the bikes off-road and unpacked the torchlights. Kang, pragmatic as always, had nicked our father’s heavy-duty steel torch from the store room, and it cut a sharp beacon over the grass, compared to the tiny coughs of light from our smaller plastic versions. For a moment I wanted to insist on fishing from the bridge. I looked over at the oldest, who stared back evenly for a moment before we hauled down the rods and the bait. Replacing my rod with a new line and hook was tricky in the dark. As the boys cast their lines I was still struggling with the rod, the defrosting shrimp slippery under my fingers. The smell of the canal was richer with rot.
Something wasn’t right, and I had cast my line before I realized what it was. We were fishing in utter silence. The world of the Yama King had strangled our usual back and forth. We stood at the edge of the inked river like soldiers at attention. The middle boy caught a tilapia as broad as one of his hands, and it went quietly into the pail with some of the murky river water. No one congratulated him or offered to help. I found myself watching the tree line, trying to make out the details, trying to figure out where the canal wound out from where the high crowns sawed against the cloudy underbelly of Heaven. A nervous laugh bubbled up past my throat. Somehow it broke the spell. Mirth quivered through our little pack. Relief was infectious.
The nervous tension faded. The oldest boy began to crack a joke that he had heard in school, and that was when it breached. First a slippery black spine cleaved up through the surface, like a submarine rising, then it humped higher and higher until it was clear that the spine wasn’t the notched fin of some very large snakehead after all, that water was sliding, oily, past matted patterns that looked like slick black tresses, a bulge of something hunching out of the water, adult-sized. The scream died in my throat.
It was Kang who saved us then, I’m sure of that now. The harsh beam of the steel torchlight flicked over at the shape, raking over its wet, white flank, and it submerged abruptly, displacing water that lapped up, chilled, to my toes. I danced back and it was the youngest who let out a shriek, the middle boy cursing. Whatever it was lanced away under the bridge, a long, dark shadow, swallowed quickly.
“Damn it!” the oldest boy hissed. “You scared it away!”
“The hell was that?” I said.
“A fish, obviously! Blur sotong!” he snapped at Kang. I glanced at the middle boy for help, but he hastily ducked his gaze.
“It wasn’t a fish.” Kang was unbowed. “Maybe it was a buaya. Or a really big babi.”
It hadn’t looked like any kind of crocodile or boar that I had ever seen before. “It wasn’t Big Mother. And if it was a croc, maybe now the fish will come,” I said, palms up, a prayer for calm. The oldest boy sniffed, but then he mumbled an apology, and we cast again, sullen, our nerves broken. When the youngest eventually suggested in a small voice that we head home, not even the oldest offered a word of complaint.
Have you ever wondered why so many ghosts are said to be lonely women, with long black hair, veiling their faces, dressed all in white? In Yama’s world the Emperor is female, and she dresses in white wedding colours. With her hair worn long and over her eyes, she has no need for mirrors.
Three days went by without a word from the boys. Kang had been indifferent, but I had been certain that I had broken something. I wasn’t sure if I needed to apologise. I didn’t even know what I would be apologising for. Then the middle boy and the youngest came by, late one evening.
“He’s gone,” said the middle boy, wide-eyed and worried. “Tai kor. He took his bike and the fishing rod and some bait.”
“He went without us?” I wasn’t sure whether to be outraged at being left out or worried. “How? When?”
“After dinner. It’s been over an hour. We thought he’d just go for a while and come back. But. Uncle said once that when you fish at night you always have to fish with kaki. Friends. If there’s no one there to watch your back—” The middle boy shrugged helplessly. “Should we go? After him?”
I was the sole leader again. Nervously, I bit down on my lip. This was Singapore, one of the safest countries in the world. No doubt the oldest boy would come back when he was ready, and if we went after him we would only make him angry again. Then I looked closer at my logic and saw cowardice at the edges. I knew that whatever we had hooked in the ink water had not been a fish, or a croc, or a boar. I was not ready to return to Yama’s kingdom, but I had to be.
“Obviously,” I said, and wished my voice wasn’t so unsteady. “Go get Dad’s torch,” I told Kang, who thankfully didn’t argue. Argument would have broken the fragile inch of my determination.
We cycled out in anxious silence, armed with one steel torch and three plastic ones, working up the steep hill of our estate and coasting past the wet market, battened down for the night, down past the four-way thoroughfare and towards the roti district. It was darker now than it was before, and the roti shops were slowing down, the cars less littered over cracked gravel. The soldier-boys at the gate yawned and let us through without looking twice, already fighting sleep. We sped into Yama’s kingdom with the onset of dead night, stringing from lamp to lamp. My hands and back were clammy with cold sweat by the time we reached the forest and its bottlenecked road, and the further we got, the colder it got, until our breaths steamed in the air. I looked back at the others. The middle boy’s eyes were so wide that I could see the whites all around, and the youngest was sheet-pale, his shoulders hunched down. We clustered together when we would normally string out.
Kang breathed out, a huff of steam. “Interesting,” he said to himself, even then the scientist. I laughed, another anxious burp of mirth, but it caught on again, rippling through us.
The middle boy bared his teeth. “Yaa!” he cried, speeding through the threshold of Yama’s world, a wolf cub howling. Beyond the tree line, I could see black shadows keeping pace. They flowed around the trees, huge snakeheads swimming through the air, flanking us, bellies low to the grass. Above, the street lamps were starting to flicker and sputter in dying gasps of light.
“Yaa!” I hollered, standing up on my pedals, breathing the chill into my lungs, echoing the middle boy. We were made defiant by our cries. The shadow-snakeheads flickered away, back into the trees, which ebbed slightly away from the road, back to low tide. The street lamps burned a steady yellow again, and the youngest whooped. We burst out of the trees to the river of ink.
The glass of the lamp closest to us exploded, sprinkling shards down on us and causing the middle and youngest boys to swerve off-road with a yelp, tangling up in the tall grass. This time, I had the steel torch. Its harsh beam swept out past the concrete bridge to the black water. And there they were, in the middle of the murky stream, the oldest boy, sunk to his belly. Big Mother reared upwards, tall as an adult human, her matted long hair falling past her face. Her arms were stiffly plastered to her pale white flanks like lengthened fins. There was a red gash by her elbow, a fresh wound that ended in a steel hook that was still embedded into gray flesh. I could see the youngest scrunch up his face, terrified. He stuffed his fingers into his mouth to stifle himself as I glanced warningly at him.
I slid down the grassy banks, my belly clamping up with fear. I didn’t dare to look back to check if the others were following me. If they ran for it, I knew I would be lost here, with the oldest boy, stranded in Yama’s world. But Kang slid down the grass beside me, hands cupped over the plastic torch, and I could hear the middle and youngest boys scrambling down, breathing in low whimpers. As we got to the edge, Big Mother turned towards us, faceless and deliberate. The oldest boy stared at her with the same abstraction on his face that he wore whenever he was fishing.
The other boys clustered close. “Damn it’s big,” the middle boy said. “I’ll cycle back and get the soldiers.”
Around the oldest boy’s belly, tendrils of black hair were weaving around him, spreading for his shoulders in a fine net. He was sinking. “No,” I said. “It’ll be too late. We’ll try to scare her away with light. Like the last time.”
I forced myself to step closer, almost to the water’s edge. Big Mother flinched back as we trained our torches on it, and hissed, like a big snake, harsh and low. As Big Mother twisted away from the light, the net contracted, and the older boy started to sink in sharp jerks, down to his chest. Hastily, I switched off the steel torch, raising up my hands. “Hey!” I called. “Hey. Big Mother! We caught you on our line the other day. We’re sorry, okay? We’re sorry.”
She hissed again, angry and low, crouching, but the black hair had frozen in place, waiting. The older boy stopped sinking. “Yeah!” the middle boy said, switching off his torch. “Sorry, auntie! Very sorry!”
“Sorry!” echoed Kang and the youngest boy, lowering their torches.
“I’m sure tai kor is sorry too,” I added quickly. “So. Give him back, all right? Please?” As she swayed to a side, her head ticking back and forth, like a bird trying to keep all prey in sight, I tried again. “What’s the point of taking him now? Or any of us? We’re still in the lean part of our lives. It’ll be decades before there’ll be enough fat for Yama’s table. Let him go, Mother. It’s not yet time.”
The hair was creeping back into the water, away from the oldest boy’s shoulders, but still he stood in the river, unblinking. Big Mother grumbled something, sinking lower in the water. She looked expectant, and I knew what I had to do. The hook still sat in her flesh.
“Now what?” said Kang.
“I’m going into the water,” I said.
“What? Don’t!” The middle boy grabbed my elbow. “Just … just keep talking here, keep stalling. We’ll go and get the security guard from the golf course. It’s closer.”
“No. I’m going in. If this doesn’t work, don’t come in after me.” I took in a shuddering breath, swallowed hard, and stepped into the ink.
The water chilled me from the ankles up, and something squished unpleasantly underfoot. I fought tears and swallowed my scream, wading deeper, to my knees, to my hips, to my belly and ribs. Something cold brushed past the back of my legs, and my toe jabbed briefly and painfully against a rock. I had my hands spread out for balance, my heart hammering in my chest, my breaths quickening out in low sobs. Big Mother watched me get closer, cocking her head, arching fractionally higher in the water before lowering herself down again. This close, I could see that her white gown was scaly skin, packed close together, mottling to black along her spine and under her thick ridge of matted hair. I reached out, tentatively, and Big Mother recoiled, then grudgingly tipped closer, making a low sound like coughed and mindless laughter. I tried not to look at her face, concentrating instead on her stiffened arms, and gently, carefully, worked the hook loose. Under my fingertips, her flesh was icy cold and slick.
Big Mother jerked back once the hook was free, hissing, peering at her elbow, then she let out another garbled coughing sound, abruptly bringing her head close to mine, inches away. She smelled of rot and the river and scales, of mangrove mud and the acrid reptilian musk of a big snake. She sniffed at me, wetly and heavily, as though memorising the scent of my worth. Then Big Mother dipped down into the water, her arms shortening, her hair stiffening against her back, and was a shadow again in the water, darting downstream, under the bridge.
Beside me, the older boy floated free of the mud, up onto his back. He didn’t speak when hauled to the shore. Once he was pulled onto the grass he went limp and unresponsive, and wouldn’t stir even when shaken.
“We’re moving,” said the middle boy, behind our gate. The youngest was huddled behind him, and the oldest was again nowhere to be seen.
“Really?” I asked. “Where?”
“Into some flats. You guys can visit,” said the youngest, even though we all knew that we wouldn’t.
“How’s …” Kang trailed off, with some unexpected tact.
“He’s okay. Got discharged yesterday from the hospital. Doctors said there was nothing wrong. Maybe caught a bit of a cold from the water, that’s all. Mum’s banned him from fishing,” said the middle boy. “I think that’s why we’re moving away. He wouldn’t stop talking about the canal. Even in his sleep.”
“I thought Big Mother was gonna get you,” said the youngest. “You were great. Talking her down like that.”
“No,” I said. The oldest had known this too. I had seen his eyes, when I had dragged him back to the shore. He had understood the truth of my bargain where the younger boys had not. When our lives grew fat and rich with time, Big Mother would be waiting. “I wasn’t. Take care, guys.”
“Sure,” said the middle boy, uncomfortably. “Take care.” Days later Kang and I would watch the movers’ vans boxing up furniture and things from the neighbours’ house. The boys were nowhere to be seen.
“Singapore’s changed a lot,” Dad said, as he drove me back from Changi airport. “They built a new connection from the highway to us, near the new roti shop. It has better roti, the original one has better curry.”
I nodded, distracted. Two decades away in Australia and even this quiet corner of Singapore had changed its face. The roti district was still snarled with cars, but the forests closer to the intersection had been cleared into orderly yellow flats, and the wet market beyond was now a neat little Western shopping hub, with a supermarket and a cake shop and a pharmacist. In returning home, my displacement was complete.
On Sunday morning, while nosing through the kitchen for breakfast, I noticed Kang in the back yard, sitting on a stool before his aquarium, studying depressed goldfish and taking notes in a book. There were three of them. One was black, with a white belly and bulging eyes. I shuddered. “Kang,” I said, by his shoulder. “Do you … do you remember the three boys? Our neighbours?”
“Long time ago,” Kang said. Doctor Kang now, with a new PhD in freshwater ecology. He had grown tall and bony and was still abstractly self-assured. “Don’t even remember what their names were.”
“Yeah.” I scratched at my chin, unsure of how to broach the topic. Kang stared at me for a long moment, then back at his tank, and got up from the stool.
“C’mon. I’ll show you something.”
He drove us out in his little Honda. The weekend morning was late enough that the intersection was quiet, though the roti district was as fraught as ever. “Dad nearly got into an accident here last week,” Kang said, as we nosed our way past. “Some guy swerved out from parking.”
I nodded. We went past the empty checkpoint, and past the colonial houses with their unruly gardens. There were newer roads now, forking to the right and left, and the little hangar with its small planes were gone, levelled away and fenced in, the grass paved over with concrete. The forests had been cut down, the ground fenced away, the trees replaced by sturdy, squat buildings with unfamiliar logos, all concrete and steel. “The new aerobase,” Kang explained, as I stared. Yama’s Court had been paved away.
We parked by the concrete bridge, off the road, and my legs were shaky for a moment before I let myself out of the car. I had spent two decades away from home, imagining my return to the black water. This—this was not like anything I had expected. The canal had been cut into a rectangular concrete gash, the grassy banks blocked in and carved down, flanked with neat safety railings. Big Mother’s river was now a storm drain, which no longer snaked away under the bridge. It ran in a long efficient gray line from the forest to the aerobase beyond. I crabbed over to the edge, gripping the rail tightly and looking over the side. The water was clear, clean, and empty of shadows.
“Sad, really.” Kang leaned his elbows on the rail. “You have to go to the reservoir now if you want to catch anything.”
“Sad,” I echoed, in a thin voice, and let out my breath in a shaky laugh, raw with unexpected mourning. My eyes stung with unshed tears. The magic was gone, buried under progress. In Singapore, the old gave way ever efficiently to the new. We stayed by the canal, elbow to elbow, watching the water sweep by, too fast for fish.