by Kira Messell
“He’s ready now,” the nurse says. Kristian slides an arm across Aisha’s back to help her out of bed.
”Not a cripple,” Aisha hisses. The nurse steps away from the wheelchair.
“I’m sorry we can’t bring him here, but the other mothers…you have to understand.” Kristian nods too eagerly, Aisha thinks, and speaks too loudly. The air con drones.
“Of course,” he says, “of course not.” Aisha’s tongue licks her cracked lips. He should have thought to bring her handbag when they came in last night, with all the moisturisers and lotions she carries around, they’d be something for her lips.
She clenches her jaw and shakes off Kristian’s arm. This time, she wants to do it right.
This time they had tried not to get their hopes up. This time Aisha hadn’t insisted on the belly swinging ceremony. Kristian had been relieved. Last time Aisha’s friend Nisa and Aisha’s mother arranged a party for the expectant mother. The Bidan, a midwife from her parents kampung had been invited to perform the ritual. Just finding the right auspicious date had been a strain on Kristian’s nerves. After endless negotiations the Bidan had finally agreed to come to the city. In the countryside, in the kampung, she usually received the chicken as payment, but with her travel expenses she ended up claiming a considerable part of Kristian’s monthly wage from the oil rig. But Aisha said that only the Bidan could prepare her for labour and contribute to her and the baby’s health. How exactly, Kristian asked, did the Bidan contribute to anything other than her own financial security? Aisha replied that it wasn’t his body being transformed into a monstrous mountain of shapelessness, was it? And that he didn’t understand anything, did he, being male and Norwegian? So he had consented and helped his mother-in-law find the required items: seven pieces of cloth in seven different colours, a coconut, a live chicken, three pieces of string, an egg, yellow rice flour, and a small mirror.
The elevator is taking them to the basement. The nurse leads them to a room painted in happy yellow and blue.
“He looks…beautiful,” she says, “peaceful.” She struggles to add something profound. Kristian nods again, acknowledging her efforts. Aisha ponders what the opposite of peaceful looks like. She pushes away the thought and the nurse’s hand.
“We want to be alone,” she says. Kristian stiffens.
“Of course…of course. Please,” the nurse backs away discreetly, back the way they came.
“She’s just trying to help,” Kristian says and instantly regrets it.
The cot is placed in the middle of the room. Sunshine sends glorious rays in through the high basement windows. It is almost beautiful. Peaceful. The parents stand on either side of the cot and stare at the starched bed linen. And here he is: his smooth cheeks and closed eyes still with traces of lanugo hair. Cold, Kristian thinks, and rubbery. Soft, Aisha thinks, and milky. Two wet circles now grow on the front of her white hospital t-shirt. Last time at least a wail was uttered from a ruddy contracted face. Like an old plum. Marzipan this one, she thinks, and almost pinches his cheeks. A meaty texture, and then later decay. Her hand flies to her mouth. A stifled sound emerges. She turns and stumbles out of the room. Kristian hears splashing and moaning and the words I’m sorry. He looks at the statue in the cot and thinks of rubber leaking out of a tree as milky thick sap. Like oil on water slowly dissolving. Goodbye, he whispers, and pushes the swing door open.
Aisha is bent over clutching her stomach and almost crying. “Now, now,” the nurse says and almost pats her shoulder. A few hairs have crept out under her tudung and nurse’s cap. Aisha is whining and repeating that she’s sorry, so sorry, while she tries not to sob. A glass of water is pressed into her hands by an elderly nurse who has been called for.
“Drink,” she says, “I’ll get you back to your ward.”
“Maybe a wheelchair?” the young nurse tries. But now Aisha has recovered her voice.
“I want to see him again.” Kristian puts an arm around her and squeezes. She smells of puke and stale blood. He should take her hands, but she is clutching a napkin with traces of vomit in one and the glass in the other. He should wipe the film of cold sweat from her face and comfort her. If only they could just walk out and get on with whatever is left of their lives.
“Maybe we should go back to your room. We can come back later. He’s not going anywhere,” Kristian says. Aisha stares at him.
“I’m fine. And I’m going in now.” She gets up. There is no stopping her. Tomorrow this will be over, Kristian thinks, tomorrow a new life will start.
Then he hurries after her.
On the auspicious day of the belly swinging ceremony, Kristian sat on their new sofa in their modern living room. After the birth, he thought, our real life together will start. Maybe he could come back from the oil rig to Kuala Lumpur every weekend for the first months, to be with Aisha and the baby. He looked at Aisha, the centre of attention, who let out a joyful shriek as the Bidan cut tresses of her thick, black hair. (So the baby will not be furry, her best friend Nisa whispered in his ear with her hand on his blond, hairy arm). In a corner a chicken was tied to a tub of water that had been infused with camphor and lime. It looked misplaced. Kristian worried about the new floorboards and the kashmir rug. Aisha was wrapped in a sarong and ceremoniously washed by the old Bidan. Her forehead was smeared with yellow rice flour. God knows why, Kristian thought. An egg was rolled across her distended belly and then crushed, its contents thrust into the water. Kristian felt alarmed. A wasted foetus. Nisa’s manicured fingers touched his knee. The chicken made a clucking sound. The cat hissed and arched its back. Everybody laughed. Nisa´s breath hot on his ear, whispered that it would definitely be an easy birth now. The Bidan huffed and puffed theatrically, while she massaged Aisha’s belly. Then the wrinkled woman took a furry coconut and rolled it across the round belly towards the swollen feet and ankles seven times. Kristian stared at the enormous belly, how many dwarves could be hiding in there?
The Bidan rolled the coconut against the wall. Kristian thought of the times he’d gone bowling in Miri when on shore. All the guests giggled and guessed at the baby’s gender until the coconut came to a halt with its eye turned upwards. Exultant cries. A boy! Aisha looked surprised and beamed. Kristian thought of the ultrasound scan a week ago. The Bidan wrapped the cloths around Aisha’s middle, one piece at a time, while her hands swung the belly from side to side seven times. It took forever. Seven times seven, Kristian did a quick calculation. A mirror was held up in front of Aisha to give the baby her good looks. He hoped without the puffiness recently caused by water-retention.
And here she stands. Stupefied, hand on sagging belly. Kristian slides past her and gathers all his courage to face the sight again. Empty. The cot is empty. What on earth? Aisha stares at the dent in the white pillow. Her gaze is vacant, but her voice is firm, “He’s gone.” God has taken him home, Kristian thinks, and dislikes the interference. Besides the divine seems too impalpable to move around physical bodies.
“Maybe the nurse moved him,” Kristian tries. Aisha doesn’t stir. He should act now. He should run out and fetch the nurse. He should alarm the authorities and force them to retrieve his son. Instead he is glued to the linoleum floor. Aisha peels back the starched cover in slow motion as if to see whether the baby has left the pillow to explore the cave underneath. Kristian reaches for her arm to stop her. Instead a movement on the sheet stops him. Arms and legs. Naked and red. A mouth gasping. A mannikin blinks blinded by the sun and the neon light.
No bigger than Kristian’s index finger, the mannikin slowly sits up in the enormous cot. Extraordinary, is Kristian’s first thought, so well proportioned. Then he looks from the mannikin towards the door. Now it’s his turn to feel sick.
“I’ll fetch somebody.” Aisha freezes him with her gaze, puts a finger to her dry lips and lifts up the mannikin. Then she staggers out of the room with the living doll hidden in the dressing gown’s pocket, his small kicking legs hardly noticeable through the bulky fabric.
At home, only the cat is waiting. No baby items to give back. Not like last time. Aisha’s nipples, brown and protruding, are as big as the mannikin’s head. She presses out drops of milk and offers them to him. She beams whenever he licks some from her finger, while the rest of the milk leaking from her is put into ice cube trays and frozen. For baking, she says, and throws out the prescription to stop lactation. Kristian doesn’t like it.
“We can’t just keep him,” he says, “we don’t know what he is.” A changeling, he thinks, the result of witchcraft. But Aisha says Allah has taken away the others and given them this one instead. Isn’t that enough and why is he always so pessimistic? He’ll grow big and strong from my milk, she says, he’s alive and he will grow. Kristian wants to protest. A consolation prize? Then images from last time pop up. Her wailing. Her sobs against his neck. He had held her and rocked her and tried to find comforting words. At some point her flood and his words dried up. She had stayed in bed and stared at the ceiling, peeling off new wallpaper with her fingernails. He still feels void of words.
Aisha wraps the mannikin in a yellow handkerchief, like a sultan, and empties a drawer for him to play in. The mannikin goes from one corner to the other, staring up horizontal walls. She puts a cinnamon roll, twice his size, in the middle of the drawer. Like a gingerbread house, she thinks, how exciting it must be for him. Nibble, nibble, gnaw.
“We’ll call him Tom,” Aisha decides and thinks of brave boys striding through the world to come home triumphantly bringing tales of far-flung places. Like Kristian used to when he first came here to work. Back in their early days, when she thought he was an exotic giant with tales of trolls and elves in cold northern Scandinavia. Now he mainly talked about lazy workers on too hot oil rigs.
But Kristian doesn’t want to talk about names, he wants to talk about the nature of Tom. Why, for example, are Tom’s limbs and features so perfectly proportioned to his body? Not like a baby, and not like a dwarf.
“What do you think he is?” he asks. Images of elves exchanging human babies for changelings pop up in his mind. Not that he will ever tell Aisha. She’s the superstitious one, not Kristian. Wasn’t it Aisha who had insisted on the Bidan the first time, although her feelings towards the old woman changed dramatically after the short wail and the too long silence? She had seen it in the old woman’s eyes, Aisha said, at the ceremony. Had he not noticed? Kristian was lost and could only shake his head. She had smacked her lips, Aisha said, and the way she had looked almost through the skin of her belly with those eyes. Those greedy eyes. That’s when Aisha brought up the Penanggalan. “The what?” Kristian asked. The ghost with it’s dangling naked intestines flying around eating fresh placentas and sucking life out of newborn babies, Aisha explained. The Bidan was nothing but a servant for the Penanggalan and had probably eaten her fair share of the placenta. Kristian said it was nonsense. Superstition and old wives tales. We’re a modern couple in a modern city. You don’t understand, Aisha said, she had been a fool to let in that old midwife. Everybody knew that Bidans used to kill unwanted babies to save young girls’ futures, not deliver them. And hadn’t it been strange that her placenta simply disappeared afterwards?
Now Aisha says he should just be grateful, like her. And who cares, she says, maybe Tom carries our boy’s soul. A living angel. Insha’Allah. Kristian shrugs and wonders about his relationship to God and to Aisha. She’s a blurry land of female hormones and sorrow. He must remain strong and rational for both of them.
So Kristian decides that the most rational thing is to fly back to Miri and the oil rig.
“I’ll be back soon,” he says. Aisha decides to organize her new life with Tom. What should Tom wear, for example? She remembers the boxes in the storeroom with the remnants of her childhood. The old dolls and barbies. Baby Born’s jumpsuit will be too wide, Muscular Ken’s clothes too narrow. Aisha rummages through the boxes. More dolls, marbles, schoolbooks. One large box contains the old Victorian dollhouse. The once yellow front porch is grey with dust and the iron hinges screech as she folds back the roof. Inside, the miniature world is stuck in another era. She remembers the hours spent arranging furniture and inhabitants, the afternoon teas she served in this house. Here is the father wearing tubular trousers and a long jacket, around his neck a cravat, on his face a moustache. Here is the mother in a frilly dress and a feather hat despite remaining indoor all the time. The baby is still lying in its cradle, stiff arms stretched up, wearing a long white lace dress and bonnet.
Aisha remembers how she used to shrink and transport herself into their world every afternoon. How she used to wish the dolls were as real in their world as she was in hers. As the mother of the doll family, she served tea and cake from frail china cups and rose-painted plates. She can almost remember the texture of the yellow crinoline dress with its scratchy lace collar, feel the pin holding the hat atop of her blonde curls. Often the dolls still sat in their Victorian splendour with the left overs from yesterday’s tea session when she came home from school. Then she rearranged the cakes and cups and served it all again.
It’s perfect! The house and the furniture correspond perfectly to Tom’s proportions. Aisha takes everything out, wipes away the dust and sets about arranging Tom’s New Home. She places the dolls around the table for company and sets the table for an early high tea. A pillowcase is cut up and made into a simple white shirt and sarong to replace his yellow sultan’s cape. Trousers are too complicated. Aisha has no talent for sewing.
Tom is apprehensive about his New Home’s old smells. Despite Aisha’s attempts at cleaning, dust still clings to velvet curtains, silk cushions and upholstery and gives the house a mouldy odor. He moves around carefully, afraid of bumping into the spindly furniture clustered in the living room. He stops and looks at doll father who sits in front of a curvy mahogany table, stiff and upright. On the table braided bread looks fluffy and warm. A chocolate cake brims with cherries and white icing. A sponge cake balances red marzipan flowers on its top. From each cake a single piece is cut out. Layers of custard, sponge and berries are painted on the inside. A few silver cake-forks lie next to the fine china plates, most of them lost years ago, too small to keep track of. The biscuits are glued to their silver tray to prevent them from getting lost.
Aisha’s eyes are following his explorations. Tom sits in a chair across from doll father. He lifts a fine china cup from its saucer and takes a sip. Nothing. Only pink flowers painted with leaves and branches. He tries to smell them. Aisha giggles as her hand shoots in to take his cup. Doll father is reaching for a gold-rimmed plate with the single piece of cake. A shadow darkens the table and Aisha’s hand replaces the cup. Milk. Sweet and warm. Then her shadow disappears. Tom takes one of the forks and hides it in his shirt pocket. Then he sets out to investigate the rest of the house.
Doll Mother leans against the coffee table reaching for the teapot. Tom finds an empty cup and hold it towards her. Maybe something other than sweet milk? Tom waits. Nothing happens. Her eyes are vacant. Her limbs frozen. Next to the rosewood coffee-table motionless flame-tongues lick one-dimensional logs. On the mantelpiece the eyes of sepia ancestors follow Tom around. The ladies wear hats perched on high curls, some adorned with a stuffed bird. The men’s stiff moustaches reach towards him. Tom glances into the blurred mirror and sees his own face. He looks neither like the dolls nor the photos. His features melt like the grandfather clock stuck at eight thirty behind him. A time in stark contrast to the perpetual afternoon tea. He cautiously sits on the burgundy walnut framed sofa and picks up a blue glass pitcher. He tries to pour the contents into the matching short stemmed glasses. The liquid doesn’t move. Next to the pitcher a bowl overflows with exotic fruits. Food, Tom thinks, roots, fruits, leaves, anything. He goes to the potted plants attached to the windowsill to dig his nail into the soft soil. Hard and shiny brown plastic meets his fingertips.
Tom goes to the bookcase and examines the colourful books. Their backs are printed with gold letters: Andersen, Carroll, Grimm, Swift next to The Holy Bible and The Complete Shakespeare. Tom takes out a slim volume with tiny letters and a pretty picture on its leather bound cover, Thumbeline it says and contains a block of styrofoam. Had it been a real book and Tom able to read, he might have identified with the protagonist and felt less alone. But, alas, the pun is wasted on Tom. Instead he thinks how the square form and bright colours make perfect building blocks.
But for now Tom continues his explorations.
Tom goes up the stairs and finds the master bedroom furnished with a double bed and a dressing table. A stiff cat stares at him from the corner. Tom shudders even though he does prefer this miniature model to the giant cat outside. He tries the double bed with its pink satin covers. Too wide. Opposite the staircase is the children’s room. There’s a rocking horse with a blond boy on it and a chest of toys next to a cradle and a bunk bed. Tom flings out the baby and tries the cradle. Too small. Memories of sleeping wonderfully squeezed into a walnut shell flash through his mind.
He crawls onto the lower bunk for protection. The satin makes him sweat in the tropical heat, so he gets up and tries to open a window. Two yellow moons glide across scanning the house. The giant cat, Tom thinks and tries to close the lace curtains, not meant to be closed. The moons move back and forth on the outside. As he turns around the children’s four unblinking eyes meet his gaze. I need to tidy up my new home, he thinks.
Now Tom drags children, parents, servants and miniature cat into the bathroom. He adorns the pile of dolls with their framed ancestors. Tea sets, glasses and bowls are crammed into the kitchen cabinet and the now empty bookcase is turned over close to the back wall to create a dark sleeping corner.
Every day Aisha comes to check on her boy. They develop a routine. Tom soon learns to recognize the sounds of the house and of Aisha’s feet. He doesn’t fret anymore when half the ceiling swings open and the walls are torn apart. The space that usually protects him then fills with her head and smiling wet mouth. “Hello sweetie.” She places a jug of sweet breast milk next to a cup and saucer. “Sweet for the sweet,” she says and licks her lips. Small home made rolls and cakes are put out, Aisha bakes and bakes. Occasionally a bowl of rice and steamed vegetables or fish are laid out in the kitchen. Not on the coffee table in the living room which is reserved for tea. Eat eat, nibble away, she bares her teeth and laughs. Fillings glint in the back of her mouth when she nuzzles his straw hair and, like a crane, lifts him to her smiling mouth, to nibble him. Such big teeth, stained by life long consumption of ceylon tea. Sometimes shortbread crumbs cling to the corners of her mouth. When cookies disappear between her teeth, they make a loud crunching sound.
After their little playtime Aisha tidies up the house and puts everything back in place. Tom waits for her to leave crouched behind the broad armchair. He doesn’t like it when she rearranges the furniture and takes out the dolls from the bathroom. They are placed around the house for company: next to the mantelpiece, in the beds or on the sofa. Tom keeps pushing them out of his living quarters. Only the bookcase and the books are left as they are, since he obviously plays with.
Sometimes, to let in air and light, Aisha leaves the house open and Tom vulnerable. Sometimes birds come through the open window. Tom crumbles yeasty bread and scatters the crumbs on the floor for them. He can’t stomach the sweet rolls. In return, a swallow offers Tom berries, worms and leaves from the nearby park. Aisha is thrilled about her little boy’s apparent appetite for her baking and increases his daily allowance. More birds arrive to feast on crumbs. The swallow often stays a bit longer to keep Tom company. He strokes her feather coat and watches a miniature reflection of himself in her eye. Swallow has wise eyes and probably knows everything, Tom thinks. When Swallow’s eyes reflect Tom against their black background, he looks more like himself.
Swallow occasionally brings friends for open house. The birds’ claws curl around the edge of the house. Swallow keeps watch and looks left and right with her pearly eyes. They leave as soon as Cat stirs. One day a myna is visiting and Tom remembers he has some rolls saved in the bookcase. He throws them at the bird. A game develops. Tom throws and the myna catches the little rolls with its beak. Such fun to have somebody to play with, maybe the myna can be a friend too. Then a flapping of wings, a black paw and a silent bird scream. Cat holds the myna down with one paw, her pointed teeth clasp its neck. From the window he watches Cat drag the bird across the floor, black feathers flapping under black fur. Cat is toying with Tom’s new friend. She lets go of the injured bird only to pin it down with claws and teeth, her black lips slightly parted, hairy and wrinkled. Tom wishes he could close the curtains, yet he can’t move away. He watches how the bird slowly stops fighting.
The next day Swallow brings Tom worms and leaves again. Tom wraps a wriggling worm in a leaf to hide its flesh and pops it into his mouth. It’s crunchy and juicy. I must take good care of this friend, Tom thinks, and hopes Swallow doesn’t know about yesterday’s massacre.
“Hush hush, get away,” a voice screams. Aisha chases Swallow out of the window. Her cupped hands then lift Tom and press him to her bosom.
“Such a bad bird, don’t let that wicked bird take you in its bad bad beak.” Tom is stiff and shivering. “Too thin,” she says and tickles his stomach, “you need to be fed.”
In the kitchen she puts him on the tabletop. The smell of baking still lingers in the air. Crumbs lie scattered on table and floor. Aisha rummages through the fridge. Her wet tongue curls around her upper lip. Tom watches a gang of ants carry away the breadcrumbs. His skin crawls. To disappear in small pieces and be reassembled in an anthill. Aisha pushes a large plate of grilled chicken towards him. Her yellow teeth glisten. Tom runs across the table and hides behind a cookie jar. Cat jumps up on the tabletop and glares at him through the jar.
“Cat just wants to play,” Aisha laughs.
Back in his house Tom squeezes himself into the dark corner between back wall and bookcase. He waits for darkness and the yellow moons to appear outside.
“Tweet-tweet,” Swallow is perched on the edge of the house. Tom crawls out to greet his friend. From behind, Cat’s shadow crawls up.
“NO! NO! NO!” Tom runs out on the vast floor, “HERE, CAT, HERE.” Tom zigzags, his small voice yells, heart and feet beat against breast and floor. Cat’s claws point towards Swallow. Cat’s eyes follow Tom escape. Swallow, boy, swallow, boy. Swallow gone. Cat chases Tom who shivers behind a pewter vase. Black paw. Claws. Meow. Tom presses against the cold pewter. Cat lurches and waits. Tail beating against wooden floorboards. Patient, slow and rhythmical. Tom’s heart whimpers out of sync.
As Aisha opens up the roof and the front walls, books tumble out.
“TOM,” she cries, “where are you?” Again, everything is topsy turvy in the house. Nothing’s in its right place. Again, the dolls are bundled in the bathroom, its tiles lending the tableau an air of gas chamber. “TOM.” She shoves the dolls out of the house to see if he lies suffocated under their dead weight. She tears the kitchen apart and opens all the drawers and cupboards in search of him. She lifts chairs and sofas, beds and tables and lets them fall, disregarding his new order. Then she throws out his last defence, the bookcase, and frowns at the half-withered leaves crumbling behind it.
From inside Cat’s belly, Tom’s high-pitched shouts are muffled. “Help. I’m in here.” Tom pricks the inside of Cat with the fork. Cat meows and wails, further drowning out Tom’s shouts. She regrets not chewing before swallowing. Aisha listens. Aisha realizes. Aisha’s stomach churns. What to do? What to do? Can’t take Cat to the vet; can’t let Tom suffocate inside; can’t bear losing more children. Whattodo whattodo. Aisha resolutely lifts Cat up on the kitchen table. Cat scratches and wails. Cat is not such a cute cat anymore. Knife. Belly. Blood. Tom is covered in blood, slime and canned tuna. He spits and chokes post rebirth. Aisha holds him under lukewarm tap water to rinse him. “Tom,” she giggles, “I hereby name you Tom.” Kristian would have appreciated this ceremony, she thinks, and erases him from her mind again, then she considers sacrificing not-so-cute-Cat to perform Aqiqah, the muslim naming ceremony, too.
Wobbly Cat tries to lift her head and open her eyes. Her head falls back with a moan. I know just how Cat feels, Aisha thinks, empty and drained, belly loose and sacking. Oh so empty. She opens the freezer and grabs a bag of homemade rolls, splits the neck open and sacrifices the contents to Cat’s stomach, before sewing her up. That should help her feel full. Cat is dizzy and sulking and jumps from the operating table to the floor, unaware of her fresh wound and its contents. A screech from Cat and more wailing. Then Cat drags her now heavy belly across the floor and collapses next to the water bowl. Poor Cat.
Now a tall dresser allows Tom’s house to sit on a hill. Nothing in the world can harm him up here. Aisha releases him into his tower. From the front porch he looks into the abyss. Aisha sings in the kitchen. She’s baking now on the operating table. Aisha really loves to bake. Cat whips its tail unrhythmically from where she lies in the basket. Now, Tom thinks, I want to go home.
And Swallow appears on the windowsill and looks at him first with her left then her right eye. Cat hisses and tries to move. Two flaps of wings and Swallow lands in the tower and allows Tom to pull on her stiff feathers and crawl on top of her. “Home Swallow, home with me,” he whispers. The bird looks left and right again, turns around and sets off. Cat’s gaze follows.
Now look what the cat drags in. A baby boy, grey with soil and decay. Meow, Cat says and sounds like a wailing infant. Aisha, who is no longer a mother, lifts her delicate hands to her mouth.
Kira Dreyer Messell is a Danish writer living in Berlin, Germany. She has taught languages, literature and history in both Berlin and Kuala Lumpur. Until 2013 She spent five years in Malaysia, where she wrote a collection of speculative fiction set in South East Asia.
She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from University of Copenhagen and University of Edinburgh. Her stories have been published in Red Rose Review, Empty Oaks Magazine, The Fat Damsel, and Papercuts.