It was quieter, once, in the black stretches of silence before dawn, and in those days the fear of men was sweeter.
Back then, a nail to the neck meant a man wanted you as his wife. They came one after another when I called, lurking desperately at the foot of my tree. None of them thought to ask why they wanted to make a monster their wife. I suppose for men it is simple.
Violence was men’s magic. They conjured perfection when they staked my neck, and for many of them this first taste was all it took to bring them to ruin. A man who steals a taste wants another, then another, and another, until the human dies and the ghost takes over. I know this well, because this is also how I unmade myself.
But I was not unmade by stealing. No, something was stolen from me. That is why I was determined, when I died, to evade the guards of impermanence for forty-nine days. After that, everyone knows, the bureaucracy of hell is forced to move on.
I succeeded, and that is how I am here talking to you.
When a man stakes a hantu, it is not only she who transforms. The man gives shape to what he wants to see: pale unblemished flesh, betel-stained lips and teeth like fresh pearls, dark eyes limpid with love and desire. A hantu is illusion enfleshed. But this cannot be sustained for long, especially in sleep, when the veil between the worlds is thin.
The husband turns over in his bed and throws his arm over a grinning corpse. He screams and loosens his bowels, and through sheer force of will reassembles the image of his wife. Just a trick of the light; just the drink I had before bed. But his worm mind cannot forget what came before. He does not sleep again that night, nor for many nights to come, and soon dies of deranged exhaustion.
Fear tenderises the meat. The longer he holds on, the sweeter the flesh, and the best ones fall apart in your mouth like slow-cooked brisket.
Like you, I am a mother—you don’t stop being one when your child is dead—so I feel I owe you something. Like you, I understand that to give birth is to enter into death. Even survivors must be ready to die; from now on your heart is hostage. It follows you everywhere, the knowledge that at any moment the worst might happen. Fear is the price we pay for love.
Because of me, the worst has happened to you. For that, I am sorry.
I knew the instant I saw him. We carry our past lives within us, and if you have cheated death, as I have, you soon learn to discern those peculiar histories. Remnants of souls, like strands of fruit flesh clinging to a spat-out seed.
The mind forgets, but the soul does not. You learn to untangle the thin glistening threads of shared memory webbed over the earth, a network so thick that it is almost viscous.
Fingers are too clumsy. Your nails will do—pluck the thread, ever so gently, and follow the vibration to its source. I practised for centuries, tracing lovers who had become strangers, acquaintances become siblings, enemies become friends. All unaware, to various degrees, of the bright filaments of history unspooling from their selves. What horror, I thought, that we should carry our forgotten pasts into new lives. How grotesque that we could not leave ourselves behind.
A hantu’s memories are thicker than the threads connecting the living, and bloody as entrails.
My previous life was a small one, but it was mine. I made it with my own hands. My parents wanted me to marry the neighbour’s son, but I chose differently. What might have happened if I hadn’t? If I had chosen to spend my life with a man whose face I could never remember, because my attention slid past him like water off a roof? I might have grown fond of him, after all. Our children would probably have lived.
I searched for them both the moment I learned how, and found my boy with relative ease. He was sly and lovely in each incarnation, but never lived past childhood. I watched him grow again and again, a reed repeatedly cut down in infancy by illness or accident or evil; I watched his parents grieve, each of them profoundly alone, and remembered how I once learned to live like that. How my grief made people turn away as if fleeing from contagion.
Eventually, I was unable to go on watching. I could not sever the cord that connected us, but I never followed it to my bright, dying boy again.
All my attention turned and flattened then. All I had was the hunt. I would find the man who had made our child with me, only to unmake him with his own hands. I raked through lifetimes and crossed oceans to do this. But he only had two lives, as far as I knew: first as my husband, and now, five hundred years later, your only beloved son.
What accounts for the strange, yawning gap between those lifetimes, during which he was absent from this earth? I don’t know. Perhaps he had come back as a worm, creeping under our feet in darkness. Perhaps it took him that long to become human again.
First I tried fear, which for most people is the simplest and most profound motivator. Inside every fear is a promise: if you run, you will be safe. You can be safe, if you will listen. A person will do anything to ensure that promise is fulfilled.
Take my husband. His mother had taught him that a child must fear its parent, that fear was another word for obedience was another word for love. If you change, you will be safe. But it was a lie. No matter how he changed, he was never safe. Yet he held onto that promise. He believed it with all his heart, and my boy paid the price. Fear can make a person do anything.
Take any of the men I ate. Make a monster a wife, they thought, and you will be safe. For these men, of course, a wife was by definition fearful, not feared. And so easy to catch, too: all one needed was some household implements and good aim. But any predator is most dangerous in disguise, especially when disguised as prey.
You see, I can only eat when transformed, a biological peculiarity. All I need is a nail.
I tried the old ways first, calling softly to your son as he walked home at night. But you had taught him well as a child, and he did not turn around. So I visited him in bed, brushing sleep from his face with my hair, licking dreams from his eyes. As he screamed, disbelief and recognition warred in his face. Your stories had turned out to be true.
I watched him, close enough to kiss after all these years, close enough to swallow. His thick, dark hair now buzzed short, his face, all angles and shadow, now clean shaven. His unusually light irises which reflected the sun like water, dark pupils now dilated with fear. I unsheathed my claws and traced his thin lips. They used to curve upwards in a perpetual, secret smile; I was familiar with these lips, once. I drew a claw across his cheekbone and watched the line bead with blood.
Surely he would know what to do, I thought. You stored your tools so neatly under the sink, he could have found a hammer and a nail in the dark. Patience, I told myself. He will strike you, and then you will have him.
But he ran to you instead, a child again, and you, being shrewder than him, rang your friends who knew about these things. They burned me with water and blessings; they paralysed me with hallowed words; they entered the spirit world to kill me. I barely escaped, howling with pain.
I had no choice but to flee. What chance did I have against priests and bomohs? Me, a simple village girl with small ambitions?
Next, I tried love. For this, I had to retrieve the nail buried deep in the heart of my tree. I had only one, and once it was used, I would not be able to change myself again—but I felt reckless, my prey having just slipped through my fingers. As I manoeuvred the nail delicately into the hole in my neck, anger prickled over my changing face like a rash.
Gone, my red slitted eyes. Gone, my dripping maw, thrice ringed with needle-sharp teeth. Gone, the sores of decomposition, disappearing under dewy porcelain skin. A woman again, stuck with the face she died in. Without authority. Without armour.
His face rippled when he first saw me in this state, and though he was quick to recover, I saw it: a flicker of desire. It sickened me.
“This won't work either,” he said finally.
I remained silent. He pushed away from his desk and stood to face me, arms folded tightly across his chest.
“I’ll call the priests again,” he said.
I stepped closer; he did not move away. Holding his gaze, my palm grazed his chest—chit-chit. Chit—and I smiled my loveliest smile, the one he used to like in the old days.
“You won’t,” I whispered. My robe slithered from my shoulders.
His expression shifted, but not in the way I expected. I looked down in confusion. His warm, dry hand had settled on top of mine. I looked back up and saw determination in his eyes, hidden beneath a curious softness. A softness that had not existed when we were married.
“I don’t know why you’re doing this,” he said, “but I can’t give you whatever you’re looking for.”
He removed my hand from his chest. The pity in his eyes made me snatch my hand from his and step away. I fumbled with my robe, burning.
My vision blurred with fury. After everything he had done, he dared pity me? After all this time, this was when he decided to grow some self-control?
“I sincerely wish you peace,” he said, and I saw it was true.
I wanted to retch and rip his heart out at the same time. Force his lungs down his gullet and hang him with his entrails.
But then he said, “I’ll pray for you,” and I saw my chance.
“Yes,” I said, turning back to face him. “Yes, thank you.” My eyes glistened with tears. “May I return—may I listen to your prayers?”
My voice trembled with what I let him think was gratitude or shame. He looked uncomfortable then, and of course I knew that he meant he would pray for me once, perhaps twice, alone. He’d meant it as a dismissal, not an invitation.
“No one’s ever prayed for me,” I said, and strangely the truth of it stung a little. “I’m already damned, you see.”
“Alright,” he said curtly. “But please, next time, use the front door.”
I obeyed. This is how we met, do you remember? You opened the door, your mouth falling comically open. Apparently your son hadn’t had a girl over since university. Pleased that he was finally making overtures at settling down, you rushed to offer me tea and cake, slicing your finger open in haste.
I refused. You were affronted, but masked it well.
You offered him up on a platter.
We prayed together—he prayed, I watched him and looked tragic and alluring—a few times. A few became many, and eventually, when two monsoons had come and gone, even his monk-like discipline faltered, and he let his eyes fall to my lips.
I could hear him breathe in the quiet room, the muffled clattering of your mahjong tiles in the distance. His fingers twitched on the floor next to mine.
Something hummed insistently inside me, but whether it was desire or disgust I could not say. Remember his sin, I told myself. Remember the broken body, discarded like trash at the foot of the stairs, and my wrath returned, bringing me back to my core.
But today another voice spoke back: his soul lay silent in the dark for five hundred years. Perhaps the gods reshaped him as he slept. Perhaps—
He leaned forward and kissed me.
Yes, I exalted, yes, yes, yes.
But just as we came close to crossing the threshold that could not be uncrossed, he heaved himself away, stumbling over his feet in the dark.
"No," he gasped.
I licked the air, which was heavy with shame and arousal. Beneath that, his profound uncertainty—who was he? I could see the question at the heart of him. Who had he become?
I know, I thought as I left. I know who you are.
The next day, I returned to a house full of priests. You stood before them in the living room, a bowl of holy water in your hands, your son at your side. His eyes were downcast, but you looked right at me with cold, clear fury. I knew then I would not win this round.
Perhaps I had no right, given my intentions, but I felt betrayed. The months we’d spent together, your son and I, being careful with each other, offering and receiving little parts of ourselves, had come to nothing. And it was pitiful, was it not, that a grown man had his mother fighting his battles for him? Could he not face me himself, on his own two feet?
Then again, my own son had not survived boyhood. Not in the life he shared with me; not in the subsequent ones either. If he had, even once, who knows what I would have done in your place? A mother does not stop being a mother when her child is grown.
As I pondered these things, I nearly faltered under the weight of centuries. But I could not be done until it was done. If I accepted your claim on this man, if I let myself think of him as his own person and not merely new flesh clothed over a rotten soul—then I was left with nothing. Vengeance stripped away reveals only pain.
Finally, I told the truth. He would not fear me, he would not love me, and this was all I had left.
“This again?” he cried, when I appeared in the corner of his room at midnight. I was once again free from the nail in my neck, and the scent of frangipani and rot made him cover his nose.
He turned on the bedside lamp, flooding us with warm light.
“For the love of God, leave me alone! Just go back to hell or wherever you came from!”
“I’m not here to haunt you,” I began, but he wasn’t listening. He was rocking back and forth in bed, clutching his hair.
“So help me God, what did I do to deserve this,” he said. “What am I being punished for?”
I sat down at the edge of his bed. He flinched violently.
“I will tell you exactly what you did,” I said. “And what punishment you deserve.”
He looked up then, face open with genuine surprise.
“It was a figure of speech. Surely you don’t mean—surely I’m not actually being punished. I’m certainly not sinless, but I can’t imagine what I might’ve done to deserve an entire year of haunting.”
“You didn’t do it in this life.”
“Nine lifetimes ago, you killed—” I could barely say it—“our son.”
His face went blank. I waited, seething. Itching.
“There’s no such thing as reincarnation,” he said, almost automatically.
“You once believed there was no such thing as hantu.”
His eyes skittered over my decaying face.
“Yes,” he murmured.
I waited and watched while his theology rearranged itself. Then the other thing I said registered.
“Even if this is true … Even if— Our? Our son? No. No, I would never … Anyone! I would never kill,” he whispered the word, “anyone.”
“And yet you did. I remember. I was there. I tried to stop you, and you nearly killed me too.”
“I am not a murderer,” he said, meeting my eyes, unshaken in his belief. “I did nothing. I killed no one.”
Righteous anger burned within him. I looked away.
“I can see it,” I told him. “The stain of murder upon your soul.”
He lurched to the bathroom and vomited. I unsheathed my nails and followed him there.
“I can show you,” I said. “If you don't believe me.”
I jabbed a nail into his temple.
He went rigid and convulsed, but I held him down as forgotten histories poured back into him: his terrible, inherited anger. His previous mother’s poison infecting all his interactions with our boy, who was too young to understand. A pool of red gurgling thickly from a small, smashed skull.
He gasped as I withdrew, shaking his head as if trying to clear water from his ears.
“I remember,” he whispered. His chest heaved. “I remember. But—these memories aren’t mine. I don’t, I never …”
I looked into his frightened eyes. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps the monster I’d hunted for centuries once wore this face, but was no longer this man. Perhaps he was guilty, but also innocent. Did that absolve him?
Caught in the flood of remembering, I didn’t much care.
“I'm tired,” I said. “Stretched out like old thread. I just want to be finished.”
He looked at me for a long time. Was he thinking about the blood on hands that were his, and yet not his? Was he thinking about our son, his quicksilver smile? Perhaps he thought of the stories in his holy book, tales of blood sacrifice and impenetrable grace. Perhaps he thought of me, his not-wife, the woman who had turned her grief to stone and scoured all humanity from herself, who wanted him to pay for something he had not done.
Finally he reached out and placed his fingertips on my neck, at the base of my skull. Light as a lover.
“Turn around,” he said.
Write to my mother when I’m gone. She will never understand me, but maybe she’ll understand you. Please.
I’ll make it quick. No more than minutes. I will not let you feel pain.
He shivered under my hands and remained silent. His nail throbbed in my neck, where it would dissolve once I was done.
I summoned the rage that lay waiting under my skin and it came at once, fire rushing to be quenched.
Afterwards, I went to his desk and retrieved pen and paper.
Long ago, I began, thinking it best to start at the beginning.
Ah—and now. Proof that you received my letter: you, in the flesh, sheathed in red, coming down the lane towards my tree. Your mother’s heart beating in your sturdy chest. Your hands trembling like grass under the first fat drops of a storm.
I reach up and slice my hair off at the nape; it falls like black water on the roots of my tree. Nothing to hide, now. What’s left is sensation. My claws retracting for the last time, sliding back through my flesh like needles. A mild breeze whispering against my bare neck.
You have chosen well—the blade is sharp and blessed, and I will not be able to return.
It is a gift, I know, from mother to mother.
Behind you the sun rises. The river edged with watered gold.