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The bandages around my head smell like sour feet. I try to focus on the scent of alcohol and antiseptic creams. My humid breath hovers, dampening the bandages around the gaps she left for my mouth and nostrils. She left a slit for my eyes too but there is nothing left to see.

The dying afternoon light strains through the long dashes in the roller shutters. The pieces of furniture, the wardrobe, dresser, and wicker armchair retreat into the shadows. Cathy had painted them all countryside vacation white, because this was meant to be a vacation home. My back is against the two pillows I placed between the headboard and my back. The stoic bed bears my aches with the softest creaks. I think the previous owners used to rent out this bedroom, the smallest of the three in the house. Why else would they have installed metal window shutters, a door lock, and an interior metal door bolt?

Birds are screeching at each other to pack up and go home as they glide through the eucalyptus trees. They know that the night is for hiding or prowling. Which one is Cathy doing? Blood pounds at the sides of my head against the tight bandages, counting time. Faith is waiting for your daughter to come home after three nights. And she is small-framed, still pretty, still a baby at thirty, not aged enough to go unnoticed, though who knows how old you have to be given the stories about nursing homes. And the times she has returned, the circles under her eyes are darker, and she tells you less and less about what she has done, where she has been.

How many terrible things I must have done in my past life. And now this life. I had dreaded being left in a nursing home if, god forbid, I live to that age. I said seventy, maybe seventy-five. That’s enough for me. This is fate’s way of punishing me for saying such things. Maybe this is not that different from living in a nursing home, stuck in a room staring at furniture, not sure when someone will visit. Bad girl, they would scold. Why would you want to leave? Turn off the main power switch so the roller shutters can’t go up. Pee in the potty under the bed, the one Cathy used as a toddler. I could unlock and unbolt the door but Cathy says it isn’t safe to walk around the house. She was always clever. Anyone who breaks in is an easy catch. If a person steps in a trap whose fault is it? Fate and their own greed helped to bring them there. Stepping my foot in one of Cathy’s traps will break her heart, so I need to devise a different death for myself.

We used to keep dogs, but Cathy would be a cat if it were a zodiac sign. The woman at the news agency near where we used to live complained about the dead cockroaches her cat left outside her yard door. And then a mouse with pink ballooning out of a hole in its neck. Appear happy with the gift, praise the cat, one customer said. And then when the cat isn’t looking, throw the mouse out. But what if you kept on eating the mice?

The ill-natured itch that lives under my bandages is having an outburst, boring through the back of my scalp, through my cheeks and my forehead. My gums swell, desperate to tell me something and I bite down hard. My hands, thick and yellow like chicken feet, twitch to tear off the bandages but I might not have a face left if I start scratching, if this is still a face. With my thick fingernails I would dig through the flesh until I scraped bone. And even then I would keep scratching until I pierced my brain to stop this itching, this hot prickling all over my skin, this pounding against my ears like someone smashing themselves against the inside of my head. It echoes in the cave of my belly where the hunger pain has been snoring, my insides trembling with each rising breath.

Maybe I should have been the man with cancer. I don’t know his name. Better that way. How Cathy carried him, a bag of bones, skin smeared with ash, sunken eye sockets, eyelids like wax as if he were becoming amphibious to swim through waters to the underworld. His eyes, when he occasionally opened them, were laundry detergent blue. I could see the anatomy of his elbow joint when I hoisted him to sit up in the stoic bed. Shoulder bones protruded from his back like the nubs of amputated wings. He groaned constantly. We closed all the windows. When he stopped it was only to sip water and mouth “thank you.” In the torchlight his lips reminded me of white dried dong sum root, no matter how many times I held the glass up to them.

The sound of plastic crinkling accompanied his body’s slow squirms of agony. “I know, I know,” I mouthed. Cathy had laid on the bed the plastic table cloth we once used for our dining table. He probably thought it was to catch his urine and vomit. He probably assumed I was another patient Cathy had promised to help into death. And even though my heart was stuck in my throat from his groaning, the pit of my stomach yawned. I pictured my teeth scraping every stubborn sinew off his bone, like eating raw ribs finger-licking clean. I smelled the blood wetting my bandages. I heard my mouth sucking at a thick straw of marrow. My gums and the roof of my mouth itched. What do tumours taste like?

Cathy said in Cantonese that eating cancer doesn’t give you cancer. “It doesn’t work that way. Ma, we are doing him a favour. Look at how he suffers. This is euthanasia on the cheap.”

She used to go fishing with her father. At ten, she knew how to gut the fresh fish before we left for home. When she pulled the tough skin off her first John Dory, she leaned in to study the little red worms coiled up in the translucent flesh. Every time she was about to gut a fish, she first whacked the fish’s head with the side of the knife blade to stun it. She said it was less cruel that way. Then she sliced their throat in between the gills.

We kept the cancer man’s wheelchair, the wheels crusted and wobbly from being pushed through dirt roads, a head torch still strapped to the arm rest. Cathy said we could use it to take me if we need to leave.

People from some cultures used to believe that by eating a person you keep them in the world of the living. I heard it on the radio when I was driving to work, back when I was still working. The man with cancer lives on inside my mind. He is angry tonight. He pounds and pounds against the walls of my skull, first on the roof, and then at my temples. He tries to scrape his way out, tunnel through my ears. “I know, I know, I know,” I mouth to him. The other woman joins him and they are like drummers building a mountain.

The moon does not shine on us. Sweat stings my eyes. I hear the sound of the man’s head banging on the floor like a bowling ball. His eyes roll back, a flash of white. I see the young face of the woman who offered to help when we stopped Cathy’s car on the side of the road on our way to the hospital. How she was smiling before I bit her ear and chewed it, crunching cartilage. When I woke I scooped her hairs from my mouth.

A low sound crawls out of my throat like a wild animal. I grab the towel that Cathy had left for me on the bedside table and stuff it inside my mouth. Muffled, the growl still shakes me like thunder.

 


 

The pounding in my head starts up again but it sounds like it is coming from outside. Have they finally escaped? How did they manage to get out? Cathy had the bandages so tight. The knocking comes closer. On the bedroom door, two quick knocks followed by three slow thuds. I slide my feet over the bed and stand up. My body feels like a heavy clump of seaweed. Cathy? A slurred grunt comes out over my swollen tongue. Maybe I should take the towel out of my mouth. Who wants to see their mother with a towel sticking out of their mouth, and their head fully bandaged like a mummy. I unbolt the door. Cathy has already unlocked the second door lock. Even in the dim candlelight from the lounge room, orange against one side of her face, she looks even skinnier than when she left. Her fringe clings to her forehead. She sweeps it out to one side but she is too tired to smile. I walk backwards into the room and hold out my hands. Her fingertips are numbing like electricity. She raises a finger to her lips and whispers, “We have visitors.”

That means more than one?

“We must be quiet. They’re still awake. One boy, one girl.”

Does that mean they’re children? How old are they? Lightning shoots through my head. I clutch it. A low growl comes out of my mouth. I stuff the towel deeper in my mouth and bite down. A bitter taste. Cathy holds my wrist but I fling her hand away. Heat sweeps across my body. I am a tumour ball of rage. Outside the room, a small sneeze. Cathy’s head jerks towards the door. Someone is tiptoeing, a hushed brushing of feet, floorboards creak. Cathy opens Mr Wardrobe quietly and I know she is reaching for the golf club, confirmed by a glint of metal. As she steps into the lounge room, she closes the door behind her, leaving me in darkness again.

I sit against the door. The wooden floor is unforgiving against my bruised backside and legs. I bite down and the towel squelches saliva. With the pounding in my head, it is like trying to listen through the clanging of an old train that never ends, never passes. The wet at the back of my shirt, and at the centre of my chest is too cold for my hot nerves. My rigid fingers feel in my pant pockets for Cathy’s note, one of her relics to remind me of before. When she was in primary school, I would come home from a night of assembling light switches and see her customary note on my pillow. I can’t read the words in the dark but I remember them. In her childish writing: I love you the most. Don’t tell dad. He already knows.

Since the illness, she has been talking to me as if I have Alzheimer’s. Do you remember that Auntie who used to look after me before I was old enough to go to school? She had a swing set in her backyard. I used to sing songs with her to memorise the times tables. As if by mooring ourselves to memories, she could stave off the sores from swallowing my face and the rest of my body. As if she could stave off the insomnia from dragging down her head and shoulders, chasing down her heart. As if we could keep this up forever when it has only been maybe two months since the fever. Too dangerous to see a doctor. Too late to think about that now.

I have been writing a note for Cathy. It’s in a corner of my mind, hidden from the skull-squatters.

Cremate me. I don’t want this body and the people inside it. Burn them death money and paper maids. Tell them your mother is sorry. Give them big houses and chauffeured cars so they can have a good afterlife because they did not have a good death. Burn them incense every day so that they never know the pain of hunger.

Find a husband who loves you more than you love him. Wear pretty dresses. Talk to me every day and visit me once a year on my birthday, not my death day. I will come to you on moonless nights when you think you are dreaming. But don’t be afraid. Know that it is because love outlives our bodies and I will always love you the most.

Cathy would roll her eyes and laugh in that purring way of hers. When her father left she shrugged her shoulders and said, “New Zealand is a beautiful place to visit.” But that was different. It is hard to cry about something that you have been preparing for your whole life.

Through the throbbing in my head, I catch Cathy’s voice, squeaky and high pitched like how she used to talk to the dogs. Her precise footsteps, careful heel toe, heel toe. A natural ballerina, I used to tell her. There are snippets of other sounds. A kitchen drawer opens and closes. Metal spoon stirs something in a cup. Cup placed on table. Kitchen cabinet closes. Other footsteps, soft but more clumsy. Cathy’s voice coos. Children’s voices. Footsteps back down the hall and then nothing. Maybe I should bolt the door. Lightning flashes in my head, train going at full speed on and on. I am not sure how long this goes for. I can’t keep track of the carriages. One, one, one, I try to count until the carriages are faster than breath.

There’s a yelp like an animal being stepped on. A thud, followed by another and another. The man’s head banging on the floor like a bowling ball. A flash of white. A boy and girl, she said. I try to stand up to bolt the door but my thick fingernails dig into my face. Disobedient hands. The hunger in my belly is awake and yawning. I will my hands to push the towel further into my mouth to gag the inhuman noises. But these hands are tired of holding onto the edge of a cliff for so long. They claw off the bandages and I fall, crashing into the darkness that has been knocking for me.

 


 

Muted sunlight slithers into the bedroom through the shutters, and from under the blinds in the lounge. Cathy has left the bedroom door open. She knows that I like to have some sun when we can. Yang to chase away the yin. She is sweeping up bits of glass and ceramic in the lounge room. She says a monster came into the house last night while I was sleeping. My head is clear like the Grose River where we used to wade with our pants rolled up, and our ghost feet on the smooth pebbles. I am watching her from the armchair that she moved to the doorway for me. This is the saddest I have seen my daughter look—even sadder than when her fiancé broke her heart and she had to take sleeping pills. My heart ached in all her crying.

While she mops the floor, she tells me that once upon a time there were two children, a boy and a girl, whose parents had a substance use problem and left them in a rainforest canyon. The boy and girl had nothing but a loaf of bread so they left crumbs here and there to find their way back. They could have stacked rocks or arranged sticks but life-long misery had addled their brains. A river ran through the cool canyon and there were ferns and trees sprouting from rocks. After they climbed uphill, they came across a clearing. The trees were beginning to blur into night. They came across a wooden cabin surrounded by red maple trees. An old widow, as small as a twelve-year-old, was crouched in front of the cabin picking mint for her tea when the children asked her for help.

The widow should have called the police to report the missing children. They would have been assessed by Family and Community Services, and might have been taken into foster care. But she thought she could look after them and save them all the hassle of paperwork, the burden of retelling their trauma. She knew something about that. They had made her see a therapist when her husband died and she didn’t tell anyone. She kept his body in the bed they had shared. When asked, she told people he was too ill to see visitors but she will pass on their regards. She fed the children a healthy lentil soup and promised to bake them cake when her arthritis was calm enough for her to handle and mix the ingredients.

After a week, the sweet little children told the widow one morning that they would bake a cake to thank her. She supervised their mixing of the chocolate cake ingredients. The boy and girl took turns whisking the dollopy batter. When the cake had been in the oven for twenty minutes, the girl opened the oven door. Is it ready yet? It smells delicious. The widow said it would take another fifteen minutes. She did not need to look. But ouch, the little girl burnt her finger. When the widow came to look at the finger, the boy pushed the widow’s head into the oven. Her face sizzled against the metal tray. The widow struggled to get out but the girl helped the boy to push her. When the widow stopped moving, they turned off the oven. The kitchen smelled of burnt hair and sugar.

Cathy pauses during her mopping and looks around the room thinking about what to say next. The house always smells of bleach after the monster visits. The golf club, back inside Mr Wardrobe, also smells of bleach. Cathy’s dreams, suppressed by not sleeping, must be slipping into her waking life. Her stories are becoming more and more elaborate. Am I the old widow? Does she think I tried to hold onto her father? The widow’s face burning might have been inspired by my now bare face. On the dining table, bandages soak in a crystal salad bowl of diluted rubbing alcohol.

When this disease first arrived, I looked in the mirror because she had told me not to. The way she said it suggested that it was something horrific she could not describe. She was right. I shouldn’t have looked. There were fleshy red volcano craters rimmed with yellow debris, like I had ripped off giant scabs too early and their centres sunk. My once poreless skin had been my best feature, even when it started to sag. And looking in the mirror, my first thought, when I could finally think, was what a waste.

All the anti-ageing masks. All the time spent every morning and night patting the cold creams onto my face. People used to say that Cathy and I looked like sisters, delighting me and offending her.

But a beautiful young face needed to be offended from time to time so that it would learn to smile and say, “Of course, my ma is the most beautiful,” and press against the older face cheek-to-cheek like a blessing.

Cathy drinks a glass of water before she continues mopping. She does not look at me when she tells these stories.

She says the children searched the widow’s house for any valuables—under the pillows, under the beds, behind photo frames, inside empty ceramic vases. Living with their parents had trained them in all the usual hiding spots. They found her cash in a zip-lock bag under the fridge. The girl took the gold bracelet off the widow’s wrist and wore it heavy and loose around her own. It was what made Cathy wary of the children when she found them resting at some tables in the national park. They probably thought that she was as naive as the old widow. Could she not call the police, please? They had asked. Could they stay with her instead? The police would only get their parents and, well … The boy showed her the long burn on his forearm. It reminded Cathy of barbecued sweet potato, how the skin blackened and peeled in patches.

If only they had eaten all of their oatmeal and not stashed some of it away in a plastic bag under the bed out of habit, both of them would have been asleep. But they did not have the right dose of sleeping pills and it turned out that the old widow had survived. She came for her revenge last night. The boy was in deep sleep but the girl was clinging onto her consciousness. She crawled out to the kitchen. She tried to grab the cup to swing at the widow. But her arms were as weak as spaghetti.

Cathy has finished mopping the floor. She moves down the hall, out of sight into the back bedroom. First, I stretch out my legs, both feet flat on the ground. The socks have little foxes and bright pink love hearts. She must have put these on for me when I was asleep. I lean forward slowly, holding one arm of the disapproving chair. I slide one foot forward and rise, a beginner ice-skater on unfamiliar heavy feet. Inch by inch, I shuffle forward. Perhaps the sleeping pills are where the children found the cash. A loud scraping sound comes from the back bedroom. Wooden furniture against the floorboards. I am almost at the dining table. A few more steps and I can hold onto a table. I listen for her quiet ballerina footsteps. She is scrubbing at something. I spread out my hands and plant them onto the table. They slap down louder than I expected. Disobedient hands. The scrubbing pauses. “Ma, you okay?” I slap the table three times, our signal for yes. She resumes scrubbing. The best way for me would be to follow the kitchen bench top. I hold onto the granite with both hands and move like an old tired crab towards the fridge. Step after step. This is how we move through life.

I am holding on the fridge door when Cathy runs over. She’s behind me. Her hands push up under my armpits to hold me up and I relax into them. My cold right hand seeks out her left hand. We are waltzers. Her other hand under my armpit. Our clasped hands outstretched, guiding me back towards the wicker chair. This is our dance.

“Ma, you okay? What’s wrong? Why did you move? You still hungry?”

I shake my head.

Her eye bags are the colour of bruises. I point at her and then the bed.

“No ma, let’s clean your wounds first. My ma will be beautiful again.” Cathy brings a dining chair to face me. We sit knee to knee and she kisses my chicken feet hands.

I lean towards her now, close enough to see individual eyelashes as she wipes my face with a towel soaked in saline. When she dabs the iodine, I hold still, my face stinging with my daughter’s love.



Karina Ko is a Sydney-based writer. She was born in Australia on Gadigal land after her parents emigrated from Hong Kong. Her horror piece, "Things I Used to Believe," won the 2018 national Deborah Cass Prize. She is working on a collection of short stories.
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23 May 2022

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