Fiction / October 2018 (Issue 41: Writing Singapore)

A Loud Bang Erupted

by Jinny Koh

Anna clutched Su Lai’s hand as they walked down the narrow corridor of a dingy HDB flat. Potted money plants and begonias, bicycles with missing wheels, wet clothes hanging on drying racks, and shoe cabinets with broken hinges lined their path. Anna, almost tripping over an errant sandal, gripped her mother’s hand tighter. The walls were encrusted with grime, the steel pipes corroded with rust. A karung guni man tooted his horn from the parking lot, calling out to residents for their old newspapers, used clothing, spoilt radio, and sundries. Anna didn’t know why they were there. All her mother had said was that they would be visiting someone who could help them find Angie. Anna had asked if he was a bomoh and if he was dangerous, but her mother had simply shushed her.

After searching for a few minutes, they found the apartment and Su Lai rang the bell. A thick scarlet sash with a small mirror enclosed in a yellow octagon frame hung at the front door. Anna turned her head this way and that, trying to catch the rainbow reflections glinting on the mirror, when the door opened and an old man appeared.

He was short and thin, his cheekbones jutting out from his face like two ping pong balls. White hair rimmed his almost bald head. A worn-out red and yellow robe draped over his hunched shoulders, and in his shaky hands was a string of brown prayer beads. He looked like the monks Anna had seen on TV, except that his garb, with faded gold embroidery, was more elaborate.

“Hi, I’m Liam. You must be Mrs Tan.” He bowed his head slightly as he welcomed them in. Even though it was mid-afternoon and the sun was warm and bright, all the curtains were drawn, leaving the room, dimly lit by candles and crimson-tinted light bulbs, glowing in red. Joss sticks of varying lengths and thickness burned in ceramic urns on an altar, casting long, spidery shadows on the walls. Anna pinched her nose, overwhelmed by the smoky incense. Su Lai nudged her hard and made her drop her hand.

Anna glanced around the living room cramped with trinkets: bronze bells and basins, wooden swords, stacks of gold and silver joss papers bundled with raffia strings, miniature dolls and cars and houses made of paper. She wondered what each of them was used for. Then, from the kitchen, Ah Gui stepped out and greeted Su Lai. Anna, not expecting to see him there, remembered the little chick and felt a burst of anger all over again. She tugged at Su Lai’s shirt, hoping to pull her mother away from this evil man, but Su Lai, ears tilted toward Ah Gui’s incessant whispers, just brushed her hand away.

A scrawny boy with crew cut hair, no older than Anna, followed Liam around. He was dressed in a white cotton tee and faded blue shorts, and his complexion, dull yellow and papery, was like garlic skin. He dragged two wooden chairs to a square table in the middle of the room and motioned for Su Lai to sit down. Anna was about to take the other seat when the little boy shook his head, so she stood beside her mother instead. Something about his black eyes, small and eagle-like, unsettled Anna. When his back was turned, she stuck out her tongue at him, indignant at his bossy attitude.

Ten minutes passed and everyone waited for Liam to finish praying in front of the altar. Anna, growing restless, shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Positioned in the middle of the altar were various miniature sculptures of deities carved from wood, crystal, stone and glass, of which Anna only recognized a few of them: Buddha, Goddess of Mercy, Monkey God. Some of the figurines were shaped like elephants and snakes and dragons.

Finally, Liam took the seat from across Su Lai at the table. Ah Gui and the little boy stood behind him.

“Let’s begin,” Liam said, his voice deep and throaty. Lowering his head, he faced both his palms down on the table and began murmuring to himself, softly at first, then louder and louder. Anna couldn’t catch the words which sounded like a mix of Mandarin and dialect. As he chanted, his palms slammed the table, his bony frame breaking into bouts of spasms. A few minutes later, he called out, “Ng Peiling! Are you here?”

Anna frowned as the house went silent. She didn’t know who Peiling was or why they were calling for her.

“If you are, show yourself to us!” he said, voice shaking with authority.

Again, silence.

Liam went on chanting and repeated the same question a couple more times. Suddenly, a door slammed shut from another room. Anna jumped and grabbed Su Lai’s arm. How did that happen? She glanced around. No one at the table had left their places. No strong wind had entered the room either, for the candles on the altar were still burning bright. She turned her attention back to Liam, who was now lifting his head up in a slow and steady manner, and gasped.

The pupils in his eyes were gone. Only the whites remained.

Then, with fists clenched, Liam opened his mouth and a voice, no longer deep and throaty but high-pitched and strangled, trailed out. “Who called me? What do you want?” The tone, though girlish, had an unnatural, metallic quality to it. Liam looked like a monster and Anna, heart thumping, pressed close to her mother.

The little boy gestured at Su Lai to speak. She gave a nod and licked her lips nervously. “Are you… are you Peiling?” she asked.

“What do you want?” the girl inside Liam repeated, more urgent this time.

“I… I… Did you drown by yourself or did someone kill you?”

Letting out an ugly shriek, Liam threw his body forward and clawed at the table. Su Lai dodged, scraping her chair backwards, nearly knocking Anna over.

“I didn’t… I didn’t… Someone… someone…” Tears streamed down Liam’s contorted face. Anna dug her fingers into Su Lai’s arm, but her mother didn’t seem to notice.

“Did someone catch you? Took you somewhere far away?” Su Lai’s voice had become strained and hollow.

“Yes, far away, far away.” Liam began scratching his face, as if a thousand ants were crawling over it. “Pain! So much pain!”

“Then did you see my daughter? Was she with you?”

“Daughter?” Suddenly, Liam appeared calmer and lowered his hands. His pupils in his eyes were back, rolling around unsteadily. He winced, crouching in his chair. “Who is your daughter?”

“Yes, my daughter! Her name is Angie Tan! Nine years old. Have you seen her?” Su Lai was on the edge of her seat now.

Liam tilted his head coquettishly to the side, his eyes darting up. “Big sister, nice sister…” the girl inside him cooed.

“So you’ve seen her! Was she with you?” Suddenly, Su Lai launched herself forward and was about to grab Liam’s hand when Ah Gui stopped her. Shaking his head, Ah Gui whispered something to her and she retreated back to her seat. Anna couldn’t follow the conversation between Liam and Su Lai, each speaking in broken sentences.

“Where is she? Tell me! Is she still alive?” Su Lai asked.

“Alive… alive… hole, in a hole…” Liam, riddled with shudders, started foaming in his mouth.

“A hole? Where?”

Liam pointed at Anna, his finger dirty and gnarly like a twig. She shrank back, wishing she could run away from this mess. But, remembering that they were here for Angie, she stood her ground and tried to be brave.

“Why are you pointing at her?” Su Lai’s voice was shrill.

“You! It was you! All you!” the girl in Liam’s body shrieked, still pointing at Anna. “Your fault!”

Suddenly, a loud bang erupted like a gunshot. Then, just as quickly as the spirit had entered Liam, it left, and Liam slumped on the table, unmoving. A sour stench like fresh vomit, strong and foul, engulfed the room.

Editors' note:
This is an excerpt from Jinny Koh's The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually (Ethos Books),
forthcoming in November 2018.

ImageShortlisted for the 2017 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, Jinny Koh's stories and essays have appeared in Pembroke Magazine, The Carolina Quarterly, Kyoto Journal, Columbia Journal, Best New Singaporean Short Stories Volume 2, and Litro, among others. Koh graduated Phi Kappa Phi with a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Southern California, where she was the Fiction Editor for The Southern California Review. The Gods Will Hear Us Eventually is her debut novel. Visit her website for more information.  


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