It is as though time forgot to erode this pastel emerald green colonial mansion, hidden away by hedges and tall trees. Its façade is immaculate, the cream trimmings pristine. Bougainvilleas grow in arches and trellises around and over it. Idyllic, almost. What lurks within is a different story altogether. When I was growing up, this house was a palpable presence—hemming me in, breathing me in as I breathed it out. It was a watchful, near-physical presence that seemed to want to inhabit me, and transform me. And then there are the denizens of the house, as strange and as terrifying as my dreams. As the person I have become. A monster aligned with the night and all of its inequities.
As consistent as clockwork, the Three Sisters meet every night beneath the angsana trees and the raintrees that stand proud. The gnarly trunks of these equatorial trees are accorded more dimension by the leverage of bilious orange street lights, which cast shadows like fingers jutting out of graves. I used to sneak downstairs as a child, entranced by the sight of them while still terrified. Sometimes, I’d dance with these pontianak sisters with their long black hair floating to the ground, sanguine-tipped and luminescent. I have watched them drink from the split throats of the men whom they lure from the streets and the back alleys. They do not harm me, they never have. I felt protected, untouched and unharmed, not by the Three Sisters, not by the house that hovered around me, that seemed to murmur into my dreams. Nor by Sister Penanggalan. Floating in the air above me like a jellyfish, her entrails reached down beneath the serrated edges of her neck, dripping blood and poison. Sister Penanggalan should have frightened me, but what I felt was more complex than fear, more troubling than comfort. The awareness of her presence rooted into all of my understanding of myself and how the world should be. I could feel even then the pulling compulsions that existed within her, nestled somewhere between tender regard and avaricious hunger for human flesh. It terrified me so many times, and caused me to flee through the narrow corridor that led to the big bedroom, trembling. Within ten minutes I had forgotten that encounter.
I forgot so many of these encounters. The sense of them flashes in and then flashes out of my understanding of my body, of myself, of where I step, of how I stand. Rooted. It is a good word for one who feels unmoored with every breath. My memories exist in thin layers, like multi-colored kuih lapis. Perhaps those memories are not as sweet as the dainty, layered, steamed Peranakan treat of my childhood teatimes. The same principle of cake-making applies to this consciousness-making. Each layer of memory enjambs with the next with such delicate precision that the only sensation that remains is a faint malaise.
I wake up Ujang, my lover. “What is it, Kamala?” he asks.
His sleep-slurred, elegantly accented voice speaks of the education he was given when he was still human. He grew up here as I did, a house at the end of a cul-de-sac on Jalan Ayer Rajah in Penang, several decades before I was born. He tells me this, but he never tells me when. He only fixes his sad, mournful poet’s eyes upon me. He bids me silent as we hold each other’s hands in a shared grief I am unable to comprehend. I just know it is there and that this loss dogs me every second that I am in this house, even when I am swimming laps beside Ujang in the pool where we first met, where I first realized that the smoothly muscled bronze god swimming next to me was changing into something more scaled, more powerful, and eminently more horrifying. It was then that I realized that what should have terrified me did not. Perhaps because I too was a monster in the making.
“There’s something missing, Ujang. I am supposed to be somewhere else.”
Ujang sits up, his face lengthening. The sheets move fretfully as an impression of a tail can be seen. It has become a familiar sight to me, one that does not inspire fear anymore. Most of my visceral fear of the unknown has been taken from me. Instead, there is a hollowness that gnaws at me, howling at me louder than the Three Sisters after they feast on their prey. I used to dance with the Three Sisters beneath those trees when I was a child. I would forget it the next morning. It made no sense to me right now that they would let me have that memory and knowledge. It let me know very clearly that there are bits and pieces of who I was that have been removed.
“You were born here, Kamala. You have always been here, even when you were not. Do you not remember talking to me beneath the rambutan trees?”
“There was no swimming pool here then,” I say. My vowels drag out, slow as a contemplative tortoise and as sluggish as my consciousness as it tries to avoid the remembrance of many things. As it tries to avoid the admission of guilt that builds and builds beneath the through-line of my immediate conscious thought.
“No, but you always wanted one, didn’t you? You begged and begged your parents for swimming lessons.”
“I got those lessons, didn’t I?” I stare at his sleep-softened features with hardened, challenging eyes.
“But you didn’t get the swimming pool. Your father couldn’t afford one anyway. Not on his government officer’s salary.” Ujang’s smile is as gentle as his voice.
He says, “You always wanted a pool in the garden. And so the house built one for you. We built it for you. It brought you home. To stay. You’re safe now. We have you.”
This has not been home since I was eleven years old, and my parents divorced. It was a messy divorce. Violent. My mother chased my father around the living room with a parang in her hand, screaming. He later chased her around the bedroom with an empty Johnny Walker bottle in his hand. Shattering glass. Slaps. Punches. Muted screams. I hid under the bed with my demons. I hid with Sister Penanggalan who turned it into a game, taking me into hidden rooms and alcoves I’d never seen before, offering me antique picture books to read. All of my childhood playmates were spectral and deadly, but they seemed safer to me than my parents.
Ujang covers my hand with one of his large ones, squeezing it as he speaks, now fully a man again. “If the house does not want you to have those memories back, perhaps you should leave it alone for now, Kamala.”
But it is not just the house, is it? I know there is much I am not allowing myself to dwell upon, to remember. I am as monstrous as this house that confines and controls us both, but I do not want to contemplate what I have become. I fear the awareness will bring about my unmaking. I look up at the ceiling where the impression of many faces and bodies are outlined, pressing against the surface of the wood, beckoning at me. A multitude of voices drowning out the awareness of guilt.
When dawn breaks I am alone again.
I push my way against the recalcitrant air into the kitchen. Food is always waiting for me in shiny tiffin carriers. I unlatch the tiffin carriers greedily every morning with my teeth. I enjoy a full range of Tamil dishes three days a week. One tiffin carrier would have compartments full of rice, sambar, and curried protein. Some days it would be mutton while other days would find me enjoying delicately spiced coriander squid, chicken kuzhambou, or creamy lamb’s brains. The other two containers in the carrier would be heaped with vegetable curries and Indian stir-fried vegetables. The next tiffin carrier usually contained rasam, condiments, crispy deep-fried vegetables and crispy appalams. The remaining four days would yield a variety of dishes from other parts of Georgetown, the tiffin carriers filled to the brim with deep-fried radish cakes, steamed dim sum, chee cheong fun, along with an assortment of steamed nyonya kuih, rich with coconut cream and sweetened with gula melaka. Occasionally I float downstairs, ravenous from a night of swimming and lustful grapplings in bed with Ujang, to find fragrant packets of nasi lemak and nasi dagang. They are left as though in offering.
In the eighties, I used to do my homework here in the second hall while watching television. My mother would be puttering about the house. My father would be drinking in the main hall while listening to his records from the sixties and the seventies. By the nineties we had left this house after my parents’ marriage disintegrated, after my father ran away with both of their combined savings. I was thrown out of the upper middle class flatly into the working class for the rest of my teenhood and early twenties, along with a mother turned from meek housewife to abusive parent.
It is strange to be back here, like a nightmare that was decades in the making, a nightmare that fashioned me into what I have become.
What have I become? What is to become of me, of us? Of this house?
I gaze at my books and at my computer, set up on the opposite end of the dining table. My clients are waiting for schematics. I have junior architects on standby in Kuala Lumpur. It feels like I have been working on this project forever. Time loops, memory swirls into absent bits and pieces of information as ever it does when your life is a trail of deadlines punctuated by bodily needs. As I push myself upwards as though to leave my workstation. I remember that I did the same thing the previous morning, and the morning before that. It feels it has been that way since the night my companionable swims with Ujang resolved into that first joyful union in the swimming pool. Since that night when I invited him into the house because Winston is gone, gone, gone. Gone, but I do not remember where or how, only that he is gone, and that his absence fills me with a wild, euphoric glee. Who am I? What have I done? What am I capable of?
I struggle against the feeling of inertia and procrastination that fights to keep me working at my computer. I struggle against the sluggish coagulating air that seems to curve around me, halting my movements. With sheer willpower I push against it and experience the uncomfortable sensation of being physically unmoored. I feel almost unencumbered by limbs, by a torso. I do not want to think too much about it, but the question haunts the back of my mind.
Why can I not feel the rest of my body?
I stoically refuse to look down. Instead, I approach the wooden front door with a brass knob I remember from my childhood. I undo the latch with a long, curved tongue and float out onto the wide, red-tiled veranda to survey the vastness of the garden, which is as big as it had been in my childhood. I gasp at the darkness and the luminescent quality of every tree, every blade of grass.
“It will never be daylight here,” Sister Penanggalan says. Her head bobs above mine. Her sad, sad eyes confirm to me a terrible truth. That haunting emptiness within me resolves into a certainty. I have children. They need me.
But I am now a predator, and a thing of horror.
“It will always be night,” Sister Penanggalan whispers at me again.
“What is going on?” I ask. Sister Penanggalan’s face is elegant, refined and suffused with far too much sorrow. It hurts my eyes. Her entrails drip luminescent venom on the charred tiles, but her eyes upon me are both sorrowful and kind.
“Look down,” Sister Penanggalan says. I do not want to do it. I do not want to acknowledge. To acknowledge would be the end of everything.
“I want to see the children,” I say, almost begging, begging for an absolution that I know lies out of my reach.
“You can see your children, if you only look down and acknowledge what you have become.”
“I do not understand.”
I do not want to understand. I do not want to admit to what I am.
“Look down now!” Sister Penanggalan’s voice is harsh.
I acquiesce, undone by the unshakeable command in her voice. My entrails trail lazily beneath me, dripping glowing green venom down on the surface of moss-encrusted and lacerated tiles that had once been red. The patterns beneath me match the patterns of the venom produced by Sister Penanggalan.
I am a monster. As I have always been.
“But I have been swimming every night. It felt so real. So how can I be dead?”
Sister Penanggalan continues, “You are as dead as I am, which is to say, not at all. But you are dangerous to your children as you are. I did what I could. But you do not possess the control that is needed in our kind. Observe the way you do not remember when you are in your body or not in your body. Nor have you learned how to preserve your own body, or to clean your entrails. I’ve had to do that for you, for the past month. You have much to learn.”
I gaze at Sister Penanggalan’s face in wonder. “You protected me, as you always have.”
Sister Penanggalan says, “I protected you because I could not protect my own children. In a sense you became my child, my one chance at redemption.”
She stops my question before it is asked. “Not yet,” she says. “Come, let us retrieve our bodies, and then you will see.”
I follow Sister Penanggalan upstairs and am left on the landing while she retreats to the second bedroom. Soon, Sister Penanggalan returns, but she is now in a light pink nyonya kebaya that is embroidered in light green and pink thread over a batik sarong rich in jewel tones. Her hair is coiled in a French knot, her lips pursed in a refined manner.
“I lived here in the 1960s and the early `70s, long before you were born. Ujang has lived here longer than either of us,” she says as she beckons me to follow her. “He was sent to study in Oxford in 1948 by his father after the war. He could have stayed there, happy, and complete. But here he is, and here we are.”
“Why did he return?” I am wondering aloud, but I think I know. It’s the same way the house pulled at me. As it pulls at me now. The walls are lambent, glowing in this world that is not the world I did not know I had left.
My eyes adjust to my Otherness and my preternatural senses. I grow drunk on everything, lovesick for the pattern of the wallpaper and the chipped surface of the wooden banisters that we pass by on the landing. I am entranced by the sight of bodies writhing within the walls. As we enter the bedroom, I gasp at the plush furnishings, ignoring the tiresome sight of my head dripping its toxic ooze upon the carpets. The carpets do not hiss or absorb the damage in a way that tells me the grand décor of this bedroom is as much an illusion as many other aspects of the mansion. This acute luminosity is something else altogether.
“My name is Jacinta da Silva,” she tells me now, but I’ve already put two and two together. She was the Kristang mistress of a famous Peranakan billionaire who disappeared in the 1970s. He was so famous, even I know his name. When we moved to Penang in the 1980s, people were still gossiping about him and his disappearance.
“I used to live here,” she says, “and I had children, like you did. My lover could not marry me, but he gave me the house, and servants.”
“How did you become what you—what we are?” I ask.
Jacinta answers, “Same way you did. It’s the house. It is possessive. Hungry. Hungry for truth.”
“The house did this to us? Why would it do such a thing?”
“Because entrapping us is the only way it knows to protect. The way it has protected so many of us.” Jacinta’s voice is grim, her eyes lit by a fey melancholy. She leads me to my body, carefully preserved in vinegar. It is painful, and awkward this time because I am awake. Because I am aware. It hurts, and it is messy. We snap at each other many times as my entrails pool on the bedsheet out of my body until finally, both of us get it right. I contemplate devouring her many times. When I am intact and dressed, I look at myself in the standing mirror. I am again what I was before, a plump woman of Chinese-Indian heritage, dressed comfortably in elegant tan palazzos and a loose silk top, with a thick bronze lariat necklace dropping to mid-torso.
“The house aims to protect, but does not understand the ordinary mechanisms of protection.” Jacinta’s face is averted from mine. I know she has started talking in order to fill in the discomfort of our acute intimacy. Putting another person back into their body requires far more trust than mere carnal knowledge, requires the trust a child gives a parent.
“The house felt my lover was misusing me, and it was probably right. I would have appreciated not being turned into a penanggalan, though. But the house knows truth in its own way. And that is not the way of humans.”
“How is the house able to do such a thing?” I turn around to check myself out from the back. Everything seems to be in place.
Jacinta shrugs, “How many spirits, how many layers of spirits make up the consciousness of a place that has seen multiple atrocities? At what point does architecture stop witnessing atrocities and start instigating them? It is enough that the house is conscious. As are you. As am I. We cannot die here. But your children can. Come, they’ve waited long enough for you to awaken.”
“Awaken? What do you mean, Jacinta?”
“The transitioning can be ugly. My transitioning cost me my young. I have tried my best to make yours as painless as possible. I have tried my best to spare you the loss of your children.”
The intensity of the grief that possesses her slight form engulfs me as well, pulls me towards her. It is a fierce intensity I remember from my now-restored memories. I embrace her silently. She shivers, puts her arms around me in reciprocation. “Thank you,” I whisper into her hair. I close my eyes against the memories as they all come flooding back.
Complete, with no room for ambiguity or excuses. I am not what I once was. I am not innocent.
I remember Winston’s demise.
“I hate being here.” Winston’s voice was petulant and he slammed close the front door.
“You seemed to enjoy the party well enough,” I said as I retreated to the main hall and made my way straight to the crystal whisky decanters. I poured myself a glass of vintage single malt whiskey and enjoyed the liquid warmth traveling down my throat before I walked across the carpeted floors towards my favorite seat, a rattan rocking chair that seemed to have survived the decades since I had lived here. It really was so well-preserved, I thought. Even the chandeliers.
“Are you listening to me?” Winston’s voice hardened as I swirled the whiskey in my glass. “I want to return to Kuala Lumpur. This shit island is boring. Your friends are boring. This house is fucking creepylah wei. Why did you have to rent this one from AirBnB? There are much nice bungalows closer to the heart of Georgetown. Or even Batu Feringghi! There are no music gigs worth going to here. The scene is boring. I hate it.”
I looked at him with his artfully tousled curls, his thick Beat generation-styled glasses and his petulant posture. If he’d started stamping his foot on the ground, I wouldn’t be surprised.
“I’ve paid for a month here. Our clients are here, and the project is going well. I’m not leaving, Winston. You’re very welcome to leave if you like.”
“We are leaving, okay?” Winston’s voice took on an unwelcome tone of menace.
“No, we’re not.” My answer to him was as calm as it had always been. I knew how to say no.
“You’ve tied me up and handcuffed me a lot over the past few months, kan?” he said in a matter-of-fact voice, sounding almost gloating about it.
“What about it?” I asked, stiffening at the note in his voice. I placed the crystal glass on a side table, watching as the chandeliers above us seemed to sway, slightly. I frowned at the chandeliers, unconsciously stirring them with my mind, whispering to the house that had been communicating to me since my return as an AirBnB guest. I watched as the chandeliers seem to rock, from side to side. I cocked my head first this way, and then that.
Watching, willing, and deliberating.
“Shall we say there is much hidden footage? What would people make of it when they find out that an older unattractive senior architect is actually a dominatrix? Wah liao, imagine the drama. What would your precious clients thinklor.”
His lips, as he spat out the word “unattractive” were more vicious than petulant. I stood up and moved towards him. He backed away from me a little.
“You will do no such thing,” I said, my voice firm, flexing my fingers. Murder limned my thoughts. I walked closer to him, my stride a predator’s stride. How will I do it, I wondered. I contemplated commonplace, everyday murder. A broken whiskey bottle, a quick, savage movement. A hasty burial in the grounds. But oh, the house had something more interesting planned. I should have guessed, even as I crooned to it. Even as the house crooned back to me. An accord was reached. It was heady, headier than the ridiculously expensive bottle of whiskey I’d thought of wasting with an act of homicide.
“Oh. I will. And what’s more,” he smiled a little, “you will pay me. A lot-lor. With your new salary now as Director. Sure you can afford liao.”
I felt a strange shivering in my body, a shivering as the tiles beneath the carpet seemed to jolt. It was rage making me feel these things, I thought. I almost welcomed the familiar onset of disassociation that had followed me over the years, one that was always followed by my conversations with the house. Through my parents’ messy and violent divorce. Through the various beatings I had endured at my mother’s hands. Through the various insults. The feeling of being divorced from one’s body, retreating into the mind, into the house. Allowing the house to inhabit me. I swallowed more of the fine whiskey. Excellent vintage. So fine, I was sure I couldn’t afford it even with my new promotion. No need to waste it, whispered my house.
“Kamala? Have you heard a word I’ve said?” Winston asked.
“Oh, I’ve heard it, alright. Although,” I said, “I do not know why you think I’ll acquiesce.”
“Did you not hear what I said about the footage?”
I shrugged. “Everybody knows we’re lovers, Winston. How will you look if you whine?”
Winston said, “I don’t care. My friends will back me. Nobody believed I wanted you, after all. Everyone will laugh at you, but they will congratulate me one, because I so jaguhlor. They all knew it was for money because you’re old. Old. Ugly. Fat.” He spat the words out again.
The room seemed to judder around us. Strange faces and bodies pushed out from the pastel green walls. A multitude of voices speaking in tongues, telling me their own stories of unmaking, of disassociation, of dissolution. A similar shaking seemed to be happening to my body. I watched with clinical detachment as my head and the rest of my internal organs spiraled outwards. Is this the physical manifestation of disassociation?
The elegant coils of my entrails dripped luminescent gore on the red and cream Persian carpet. The chandelier divorced itself from the ceiling, dropping onto Winston. There was a sick, crunching sound as the chandelier hit his chest. Blood, sanguine rich, splattered across the carpet. Shards of crystal from the chandelier made lacerations on his skin, revealing gashes of musculature and flesh. Two of the arms of the chandelier had entered his chest. His eyes bulged out of his head.
Newly-born and hungry, I forgot my initial shock as the need to feed overcame my revulsion. I swooped down to devour him. His flesh was warm, and he was still alive, but barely. I tore out his jugular with my strong teeth, and feasted. When I was done, I licked his bones and skeleton clean. The taste of homicide was as sweet as victory, as complete as this final transformation.
I was still hungry.
This hunger would last the rest of my days, I thought. I ranged with giddy experimentation around the hall. My newly hypersensitive senses routed out the scent of flesh. Young flesh. Right above my head. My entrails affected my equilibrium. When I got used to my newly truncated form, I moved out of the main hall and made my way up, my discombobulated form weaving erratically six feet above the staircase. The Three Sisters were waiting for me. Their presence close to the top of the stairwell halted me.
“No,” said the youngest sister. Her hair floated down behind her, and her white clothes covered a cadaverous form.
“I need food, I am hungry,” I croaked. The sound of my voice shocked me. It was not the sound of Kamala, it was the sound of something else.
“No!” said the oldest sister.
“We did not protect you when you were a child only to step aside and let you devour your own children, Kamala,” said the middle sister. She reached out a hand to touch my forehead. Every memory of every encounter I had with them in my childhood returned.
“Return to your body now,” she said with an air of command. But my hunger ignored even that.
“I will not. I am hungry,” I croaked in a voice that frightened me.
“Not in this house,” said Sister Penanggalan as she bobbed out from between the three sisters.
“Not in this house,” the three sisters chanted.
Sister Penanggalan breathed into my face, and I sank into oblivion.
When Jacinta leads me into the gardener’s quarters, I find my children there, all three of them. Rita, Vikram and Jayanthi sit in front of an ancient television, watching a children’s program in black and white. I nearly weep because they do not shriek in terror when they see me. Instead, they run to me and hug me.
“Amma, where were you? We have been so bored here!”
Rita, the oldest, fixes her eyes upon me. “Did Uncle Winston do something bad? Auntie Jacinta said we had to stay in the gardener’s quarters until it was safe to come out.”
“Uncle Winston is no longer here,” I say shortly, even as I squeeze all three of my children gently. I feel grateful that I am not undone by hunger by their touch, but I remain terrified that I will devour my own children.
“Are we going home now, Amma?” Vikram asks me.
I shake my head. “You’re going home. A car is coming for you soon. Auntie Letchumi will collect you at the airport, and one of my staff will be with you on the plane.”
“Amma, what is going on?” Jayanthi, my youngest, tugs at my olive tunic. My heart squeezes in grief.
“I am going to be very busy, love. And school holidays will be ending soon. Be a good girl, okay achi?”
I kiss the forehead of my youngest, and allow Jacinta to help me usher them out of the gardener’s quarters where they had been kept safe from me.
My children return home escorted by one of the more trusted junior architects of our Penang branch in response to my Whatsapp message. We can still send electronic messages here. It’s very convenient, but I can never communicate with my children again. They now think I am dead.
In a sense, I am dead. Once they left the grounds, there was no going back, because this home is not quite on the Penang I know. Jacinta tells me this is a lane-world, a Penang that exists alongside the physical island, one created through ruptures in history because of an act of evil committed by a colonizer. I nod at her distractedly—I am sure it means something to someone. All it means to me is that the life I enjoyed—or thought I enjoyed—was now over.
Soon, there were police reports, and news reports of the mysterious disappearance of a famous woman architect and her lover.
“Former lover,” Ujang says as we watch the news in the second hall, curling up on the sofa. We have become an old pair of besotted lovers, our fingers intertwined, our breathing in harmony. It is movie night, a new tradition in our macabre household. I insisted upon it, and they humored me in my never-ending grief at being separated from my progeny and my humanity. Soon Jacinta and the Three Sisters will join us. We will sit together like civilized monsters, enjoying snacks and a movie marathon.
I remember my first night, when I thought this was an AirBnB rental. Ujang and I raced each other up and down the swimming pool while Winston trolled newbies on the Lowyat forums on his laptop. I think I knew we were going to be lovers from that first swim, though not exactly how it would transpire. I think I knew it even as he smoothly changed from man to crocodile, crocodile to man with every lap. It is best not to question these things too deeply, I tell myself now, even as I acknowledge that perhaps I had always been monstrous. Perhaps I had always been a penanggalan-in-training and my entire life up till the point where my head detached itself from its body was mere prologue.
“Can’t we get the house to bring us a newer television?” I murmur into his ear. My head remains in my body—I’ve never gotten used to the sight of my entrails dangling beneath me and I’d rather not overexpose the were-crocodile I love to that version of me.
“We could, but remember, the house always exacts a price on all of us. For everything it brings us.”
Ujang’s eyes are sombre. Unease gnaws at my insides.
“What do you mean?” I ask.
“Listen, did Jacinta ever tell you that she grew up here? Just like you and me. But when her lover wanted her ensconced in a comfortable house, this one came on the market. What do you think that means?”
“The house never lets go of its own?” My improbable heart skips several beats as I speak, each vowel drawn out slowly as though trying to hold back a growing awareness.
“Precisely,” says Ujang. “After all, I am here, aren’t I? I was going to live on in Oxford. I was happy there. My father didn’t want me to return to live a conflicted life as someone trapped between two cultures. But he died here, along with my stepmother, when the staircase collapsed. So I had to come back. And then the house turned me into a crocodile.”
His laugh is a sudden, sharp bark. I look at him with curiosity, even though I am filled with a new foreboding. “You want to know something funny? My name wasn’t even Ujang then. I took it as a kind of joke because of Bujang Senang.”
The unease becomes a stronger certainty. Not my children. Not my children. Rage colors everything in crimson that glows from within. This house that had turned me into a monster was hungry. It would never stop being hungry. And it wanted my progeny. That certainty was suddenly diamond-hard in its clarity.
Never my children. I would risk my own monstrous happiness to prevent them being trapped here with me. With us.
“I won’t let the house do that to my children, Ujang,” I say, my eyes hard upon his, almost in accusation. Almost as though he was complicit. But I hold myself back. Barely.
We are all complicit in this, after all.
“None of us want that happening to your kids, Kamala,” he says as he squeezes my shoulders. “And all of us, in our own way, have worked to change things. But it’s not been enough.”
“I’ll not give up, Ujang,” I say. “Not in this house, said the Three Sisters, but that was not always true, was it? Jacinta’s children died here, and the truth of the house changed. Changed with her grief.”
I choke back on my own grief, on my own desire to do something … anything to stop the house. I am also aware that Ujang is gently restraining me, even as he speaks, soothing me, and gentling me.
“Yes,” says Ujang. “We’ve all worked to change the truth of the house, change the reality of it. That’s how the swimming pool got built. That’s how you’ve been protected. All the years of your life.”
“And now we’ll work to protect your children as well,” says Jacinta as she walks into the room, bearing a plate piled high with geragau prawn fritters.
“I suppose I’ll have to be content with that, for now.” My tone is sullen and rebellious. Ujang still holds me, but I have relaxed against him, so he restrains me no longer.
“Don’t be content, Kamala,” said Jacinta now. She puts down the plate on the coffee table before us before she sits down beside me. “Never be content. Ever. But pick your battles with the house wisely.”
Her eyes upon mine are fierce. My head rears back as I shrink against Ujang. We monsters, we creatures of the night—how do we keep from consuming each other? Instead we band together, our lives like hands clasped in prayer. Perhaps we exist to change the truth of this house, to modify it into a kinder truth.
“No,” I said in agreement, blinking back my inhuman tears. “We will never be content. And we will stop the house from claiming my children.”
The fires in Jacinta’s eyes subside. The familiar softness returns. “I’ll definitely consider myself a part of that.”
The lights flicker erratically above our heads as we sit together now in silence, ignoring the poor transmission from an analogue television set. We are not sure if that is a warning or a benediction from the entity that cradles us all.