by Geneve Flynn
The incessant chiming underscored the cabbie’s music and the occasional blare of a horn. Theresa wondered what the hell it was as she braced herself. There were no seatbelts in the back of the taxi. Hopefully, wedging herself tight between her luggage would work just as well.
The taxi casually swerved within inches of a looming truck. Theresa’s foot jammed down on an invisible brake pedal. “Christ! Careful!”
The Malay cabbie twisted in his seat. “Ah?” A grin split his face, showing teeth stained yellow with tobacco.
Brake lights flashed in front.
“Watch out!” Theresa squeaked.
The little man spun with what seemed like infinite slowness. “Cibai!”
The cab screeched to a smoking halt. The theory of the luggage wedge didn’t hold out and by the time Theresa staggered out of the taxi at the gate to her mother’s house, her lip had swelled like a hot slug.
The cabbie deposited her bag beside her feet and took off, trailing tinny music and fumes. Theresa plucked at her shirt, grimacing in the humidity. She looked up the street one way, then the other.
Nothing but potted road and endless walls and gates, enclosing concrete courtyards and two-storey, concrete homes. Not a blade of grass to be seen. A bougainvillea sent canes over the side of one wall, vibrantly pink. A thin, collarless mutt lay sleeping in the shadow of another wall. Kuching. Home.
“Bao-bao!” Theresa’s mother hurried across the small concrete courtyard and swung open the gate.
Thirty-four years old and her mother still called her ‘baby’. “Hey, Ma.”
A brief darkness clouded Chu Hua’s face, tightening the skin around her mouth and eyes. “‘Hey, Ma’? Cheh! After all these years—” She grabbed Theresa’s chin, forcing her face from side to side.
“What happened? Did that Darren hit you? I knew he was no good!”
“No, Ma, the taxi driver had to brake suddenly.”
“Those bangkalis. Hopeless!”
“He wasn’t Indian; he was Malay.”
Theresa gently pulled away and picked up her bag, stifling a sigh. Even without the ten-hour flight from Brisbane, this visit was going to be exhausting. From the moment Freddy had called, the old weight she had thought to cast off had settled back onto her shoulders.
“Ma’s not right.” As usual, her brother didn’t bother with niceties. No “How’s business going?”, no “Have you found a Chinese boyfriend yet?”. In a way, Theresa was glad. The news was bad enough.
“What do you mean?” Theresa asked.
“Aunty Shihong called me and said Ma’s been acting weirdly. The neighbours say she prowls around at night.”
“Prowls? What do you mean, ‘prowls’?”
“The ladies at her church meetings haven’t seen her in a month and Aunty Shihong says she’s not eating.”
As her mother led the way into the dark, air-conditioned cool of the house, Theresa could see that Aunty Shihong was right. Chu Hua had always prided herself on her daintiness, exclaiming to anyone who would listen that it was a wonder she could have given birth to such a solidly built daughter. But what had been an enviable fineness had now become frailty. Even in the dim light, the sharp ridges of her mother’s shoulder blades visibly tented the back of her silk dress.
“How are you, Ma?”
Chu Hua waved her hand and detoured into the kitchen. “Fine, fine.”
The sweet green smell of tea drifted from the room. Theresa followed, her stomach tightening.
The shelves—groaning with sauces and jars of salted plums and mandarin peel—were the same. The neat stack of plastic takeaway containers still teetered in the corner. The same squat rice cooker took centre stage on the counter. How was that thing still going?
Theresa pulled up a stool and sat at the mottled-jade laminated counter.
Chu Hua bustled around and poured them both a serve of tea in tiny cups and pushed the plate of almond biscuits forward. “Eat! I made these this morning. Eat while they’re fresh.”
Out of habit, Theresa picked one up. “Freddy called. He’s worried about you.”
Chu Hua’s wide smile revealed a flash of her former beauty. “Freddy is such a good boy. He always thinks of me.”
And yet I’m the one who’s sitting in this kitchen. “Is everything okay? You look like you’ve lost weight.”
Her mother’s mouth pursed. “Something you should consider.”
Theresa put the uneaten biscuit back. She folded her hands into her lap, looked down and took a deep breath. “Look, Ma—”
“Bao?” Chu Hua stared over Theresa’s shoulder, the corners of her coral lips trembling wetly. “Where are you?” She snatched up the plate and shuffled off towards the hallway. “Bao?” Her voice wavered on the edge of tears.
“I’m here, Ma.” Theresa trailed her mother.
Chu Hua disappeared into the sewing room. She hastily put the plate down; it teetered on the edge of the deeply polished Singer sewing table. Chu Hua frantically dug around in the bags of scraps and bolts of material in the corner. Theresa pushed the plate in and bent closer to the machine, frowning. A snarl of thread and material was bunched under the sewing machine’s presser foot.
Several needles had been snapped off and bristled from the mess.
The skin on Theresa’s arms chilled and her heart shrank just a little. Please, don’t let it be dementia. Of course, it could be any number of things. Any one would mean Theresa would have to abandon her carefully constructed life six thousand kilometres away.
Pieces of cloth flew in the air behind Chu Hua. “Bao? Where are you? Come out at once!”
Theresa put her hands on her mother’s shoulders, wincing at how birdlike she felt, and gently pulled her away from the bags. “Ma, stop. I’m here.”
She steered her out of the room. She would tidy up the mess after she got her mother to lie down. Then she’d call Dr Lee. “I’m here, Ma. Bao-bao’s here.”
Chu Hua twisted and sneered. “You stupid worm, why would I look for you?” As swiftly as the ugly expression had appeared, it vanished, like a turtle disappearing back below the surface of a pond.
Theresa sucked in a breath and took her mother’s bony elbow, with the gentlest hand because she wanted so much to slap her. Chu Hua patted her hair and allowed herself to be led, shuffling like a woman of ninety.
“She needs to eat. And her body is too cooling.” Dr Lee handed Theresa a prescription and drew the front door shut behind them both. Theresa glanced down at his blocky writing: GINSENG, GINGER, ARROWROOT…
Her mother had gone into a frenzy of cleaning when Theresa had made the appointment. Unable to stop Chu Hua from fussing over the living room and sweeping the floor in readiness for the doctor’s arrival, Theresa had simply joined in. Theresa’s sense of dread had deepened as she silently cleaned by her mother’s side. The corners of the rooms were thick with dust and there were bowls crusted with dehydrated milk powder tucked beneath tables and chairs. Little piles of marbles and cheap, plastic toys had been secreted behind doors. It had taken them the full two hours before Dr Lee’s arrival to clean the house and Chu Hua had sat after the first manic rush, leaving Theresa to finish the rest. Then, within moments of Dr Lee’s examination, her mother’s eyes had drooped, and she now snored quietly on the couch.
Theresa folded the thin, crinkling paper and tucked it into her back pocket. “What about the odd behaviour? Don’t you think she needs to be seen by someone—” She’d been about to say qualified but changed tack. “Someone who specialises in this type of thing?” She glanced at the closed door. Dr Lee took the hint and led the way to his car.
“She’s all alone. She’s getting old. She isn’t eating.” He rested his bag on top of the boot and fixed Theresa with a stern gaze over his wire-rimmed glasses. “She needs her family around her, caring for her, not some quack.” He tossed the bag into the back seat and scooted his small frame into the driver’s seat. “You’ve been away for too long, Ling Ling,” he said, calling her by her Chinese name. “It’s time you came home and looked after your mother.”
Hey Angie, so I’m going to be here for a while. At least, until I can sort out what’s happening with my mum.
Theresa stared at the screen and sighed. What more could she say? Angie was her best friend, but she was Australian. Would she understand? Theresa looked around her old room. A few of
Freddy’s old sports trophies and piano medals had immigrated, but it remained the same as when she’d left for university sixteen years ago. She grinned at the photo of herself receiving the academic award in form five. That was a severe bowl-cut. The taffeta pink dress wasn’t much better. Angie would be in stitches if she saw that.
“Bao?” Chu Hua called from the living room, her voice weak and tremulous.
With a click, Theresa shut her laptop then straightened the books on her desk. When things were tidy, she got up. There was no need to hurry. It had been a week since she’d come home and she’d gotten used to the theatrics in her mother’s summons. Usually, Chu Hua just wanted a fresh cup of tea, or to talk about her friends: none of whom Theresa knew. It was quarter past seven at night, so, more likely, Chu Hua wanted her to change the channel from the news to her game shows.
As the closing music from the news echoed down the hall, Theresa caught sight of her reflection in the mirror. The face that stared back was blank, vacant, as if the life she’d lived since leaving this house hadn’t counted for anything. A week. A week and she was back as her sixteen-year-old self.
What was she doing, changing channels for someone who lay within reach of the remote? She might as well plonk a bowl on her head, hack off her hair and climb back into that pink taffeta.
She couldn’t do this. She wouldn’t. She continued down the hall, ignoring her reflection in the pictures hung every few feet. She would tell her mother that she was going back to Australia. There was nothing wrong with Chu Hua.
If there was something wrong, she would get in a carer. That was that. There was nothing to say that she had to be the one to look after her mother.
The living room was in darkness. Only the blue glow from the TV lit up the top of the plastic-covered sofa and the coffee table. “Ma? Are you in here?”
“…little worm fly! Fly to the lychee tree…” Her mother’s singing was soft and tender. It came from the corner nearest the open front door. Her hunched form was outlined by the light from the television. She squatted at the entry, peering out into the darkness. The sickly yellow light from the street lamp didn’t quite reach the courtyard and Theresa couldn’t see what was out there. Chu Hua reached forward and Theresa caught the gleam from a bowl and spoon, and the ceramic scrape as her mother scooped out the last bit of food, likely leftover congee from dinner. In the shadows, a small body with a large head darted forward and slurped at the spoon. Its eyes swivelled towards Theresa standing in the doorway. With a chirp, it disappeared.
“Bao-bao!” Chu Hua cried in dismay. She dropped the bowl and spoon with a clatter and pushed to her feet. The gate clanged and rattled. There was a slight thump as the child landed on the other side, then the pattering of feet faded away. Chu Hua spun on Theresa. “You! You make me angry until I want to die!”
Theresa fumbled for the switch and flicked on the light. In the cold brightness, her mother looked shockingly haggard. Her blouse hung agape and her bra was undone. Her breasts hung like used teabags. Eyes averted, Theresa swiftly tugged her mother’s shirt closed.
“Ma, what are you doing!” Even as she asked, she knew there could be no good answer.
Chu Hua knocked her hands away and did up her bra and buttons. “None of your business.”
Theresa let her hands drop by her side. “Ma, you need help.”
“Nonsense! I do what I like.”
“What were you doing?”
Chu Hua fussed with her blouse, her mouth a tight, thin line.
Theresa tried a different approach. “If it’s an orphan, we should call child services.”
“Huh!” Chu Hua lifted her chin. “You do that and see what happens. She won’t like it. Not one bit.”
“So, it’s a little girl?”
A sly smile crawled across her mother’s face. “Yes, a precious girl. Not like someone I know.”
Theresa bent and retrieved the bowl and spoon, blinking back tears. Cold congee had sprayed up the door jamb. She would call Dr Lee tomorrow.
Theresa dialled Freddy’s number while she waited for Dr Lee to turn up. Her mother was in the sewing room, and the reassuring hum of the Singer machine told Theresa she was occupied and not likely to overhear.
“…hey, sorry I missed you. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”
Theresa sighed. She’d been trying all morning and had gotten his answering message each time. “Hi Freddy. Call me back as soon as you can. Bye.”
Theresa stuck her phone in her back pocket and left the dining room. “Yes, Ma?”
Chu Hua was bent over the sewing machine, her foot rocking the pedal. The sight brought back a pang so sweet and bitter that Theresa had to stop in the doorway for a moment. She’d spent so many hours playing with her dolls, fashioning clothes out of scraps at her mother’s side while Chu Hua sewed wedding dresses and baby’s outfits. Theresa’s father had run off with the ah mah, the maid, when Theresa was seven, leaving her mother with two young children, a bundle of gambling debt, and little else. Chu Hua had kept Theresa and Freddy fed and schooled by sitting in this very room, bent over the same machine for countless hours.
“What’s up, Ma?”
Chu Hua beckoned her in without looking up or pausing the pedal. Smiling, Theresa approached.
“Look what I made for you.” Chu Hua held up a tiny outfit made of red silk, complete with gold knotted buttons down the front.
Theresa’s smile faltered. The outfit was for a small child. Was this her mother’s way of hinting at grandkids again? “Uh, thanks, Ma.”
Chu Hua looked up and beamed. “It will fit you perfectly.”
The buzzer at the gate sounded.
“Who’s that?” Chu Hua asked, laying the outfit down with a frown.
“I’ll answer it. Probably someone selling something.” Theresa hurried to the front door and let Dr Lee in.
“Did you get her to drink the ginseng?” Dr Lee asked as they entered the living room.
“Dr Lee, something’s very wrong.” Theresa tried to keep her voice level. “There’s been a child, a girl, coming around, and my mother’s been feeding her. She’s acting really strangely. She…she exposed herself last night.”
The doctor peered at Theresa over his glasses, expressionless.
“She’s in the sewing room, making a baby’s outfit,” Theresa hissed. “For me. Please. I’m really worried about her. This is more than just being ‘too cooling’. She needs help.”
“Wei! Shi fu Lee!” Chu Hua exclaimed from the doorway, patting her hair and straightening her dress. She put on a gracious smile. “I didn’t know you were coming to visit! Would you like some tea? Please, I made some steamed cake last night. Not as nice as Mrs Lee’s, of course!”
Dr Lee inclined his head. “Thank you, Mrs Yang. That’s very kind. Just tea, please.” He patted his stomach. “I must watch my figure.”
Chu Hua broke into merry peals of laughter. “Nonsense, Shi fu. Come, sit.” Dr Lee sat at the table and set his bag by his feet. Chu Hua raised her brows at Theresa then joined him and began chattering.
Theresa went into the kitchen and busied herself with the tea and cake.
“…I’m worried about Theresa,” Chu Hua said. Her mother didn’t lower her voice; Theresa was meant to hear this. “She has changed so much since she left home.”
Dr Lee grunted.
“So westernised,” Chu Hua continued. “I thought she was coming to visit me, like a good daughter, you know. But I feel her watching me all the time. Looking for what, I don’t know.”
“Theresa says you’ve been feeding a young girl.”
“Bao-bao.” The smile in her mother’s voice was audible. “Yes, poor thing. She has no home.”
“That’s very charitable.”
“We should look after each other, eh? Theresa wants to call child services. Cheh! That’s the western answer to everything. Pass it on to someone else.”
“Hmm. Have you noticed any mood swings lately?”
“Oh yes, plenty. One minute she’s my sweet daughter, the next minute she’s like a stranger.”
“No, Mrs Yang, I mean for you.”
Chu Hua laughed prettily. “It’s a woman’s prerogative, isn’t it?”
“So, nothing out of the ordinary?”
Theresa had heard enough. She went into the sewing room and snatched up the red outfit.
“Look at this!”
Chu Hua and Dr Lee looked up in surprise.
“Dr Lee, she said this was for me. That it would fit perfectly. It’s for a little kid.”
Chu Hua’s face twisted into a snarl. She sprang from her chair and lunged for the outfit. “How dare you touch what isn’t yours!” she screeched, slapping Theresa across the face and shoulders.
Theresa yelped and dropped the outfit. “You’re not my real daughter!” Chu Hua swept up the tiny suit and began tearing at the sleeves, ripping apart the fine stitching, popping off the gold knotted buttons. Dr Lee watched, open-mouthed. Theresa clutched her stinging face and backed away.
When the outfit had been reduced to shreds, Chu Hua seemed to return to herself. She patted her wild hair and smoothed her dress. She gave them an unsteady smile. “Theresa, where is the tea?
Poor Dr Lee must be parched.” She slowly folded sideways, like a dying heroine in a Chinese epic.
My mother is graceful in all things, even fainting.
Chu Hua pitched over and hit the floor with a crack.
Theresa sat at the dining table, staring at the insurance claim forms. She felt tired to her bones and the empty house seemed to be closing around her, reaching into her chest. Chu Hua had been admitted to the Sarawak Hospital for treatment and assessment. She had not gone quietly, even with a lump on her forehead the size of an egg. The terrified bewilderment on her mother’s face had been the worst. The insults and curses had been nothing compared to Chu Hua’s plaintive cries for help.
The haematoma had looked worse than it was, and her mother was in the best place for care if things worsened. After sedating Chu Hua and sending her for scans, the doctor at the hospital sent Theresa home. The results of the tests wouldn’t be available until tomorrow and Theresa was of no help while her mother slept.
Theresa left yet another message on Freddy’s phone, righted the upturned furniture, and cleared away the scraps of red silk. Apart from the claim forms, there was nothing left to do but wait. Theresa went to call her aunt, but the thought of relaying everything that had happened stopped her.
Instead, she went into her room and lay down. Rest. She would just rest for a moment.
Theresa opened her eyes to darkness. She lay still, staring up at the ceiling. Unless she had slept through it, there’d been no call from either Freddy or the hospital. She hoped her mother was sleeping peacefully.
She swung her legs over the side of the bed and turned on the light. The house was silent. The old fear of some small thing, scuttling in the darkness, watching, billowed in Theresa. It was something that had chased her all through childhood, so much so that she was certain she’d even seen its eyes once or twice. In the empty house, the sensation returned with force. She hurried into the living room, flipping lights on as she went. She turned on the television and the closing music for the news came on. Theresa exhaled. Better. Her stomach rumbled and she realised she hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
She entered the kitchen and opened the fridge. There was a bowl of rice and vegetables. Boiled ox tongue sat in a takeaway container, black with soya sauce and spices. Theresa shut the fridge and reached for a pack of instant noodles and set the kettle boiling.
“…little worm fly! Fly to the lychee tree…”
Ma? How had she gotten home?
The voice drifted in from the living room. At first, it sounded like her mother’s voice. But as the singing continued, Theresa realised it was higher, sweeter. Childlike.
Theresa stole towards the living room and peeked around the doorway. The side of a large head was visible behind the coffee table, bent as if its owner was playing with something on the floor. It was completely bald and its skin was tinged green. The creature sang softly to itself.
The head suddenly snapped up. Dark eyes widened and the strange child, no more than a toddler, sprang up, scrambling for the open front door. With a rattling clang over the gate and a thumped landing on the other side, it was gone.
Theresa rushed to the gate and swung it open. She looked up and down the road, searching the shadows between street lights. A chorus of barking broke out, widening as each dog took up the alarm. Soon, the street echoed with noise and it was impossible to tell which way the creature was travelling. Heart drumming and chilled despite the thick heat, Theresa locked the gate and dashed inside. She closed the door and turned the deadlock. She must have forgotten to lock it after returning from the hospital.
Twisting the hem of her shirt, Theresa reluctantly approached the coffee table. What had it been playing with? She edged closer, then froze. The red silk outfit had been reassembled, still torn, but its pieces had been carefully arranged into place, complete with gold, knotted buttons down the front. Above the neckline, was a smiling photo of Theresa as a baby.
“Freddy! Answer your goddamn phone!” Theresa snapped. Hanging up, she flung her mobile onto the dining table with shaking hands.
What was that creature? Why had her mother been feeding it? What was it doing with her baby photo?
Theresa swept up the pieces of red silk and gold knotting. She wrapped the lot in three plastic bags and shoved everything into the bin. She almost tossed the photo in as well. But the memory of her mother, poring over each page of the album, exclaiming over each picture, stopped her. She went to the living room, tugged the album from the shelf and brought it back to the table. She flipped to the front and found the empty pocket.
Before she could put the photo away, something caught her eye. The picture next to the empty pocket was of Theresa’s first birthday. Theresa slid the photo free and peered at it. It showed a chubby baby on her mother’s lap in front of a birthday cake. The table had been set up outside and cousins and aunts and uncles were gathered in the back courtyard. She’d been sick that day and her face was teary and red as Chu Hua held her for the blowing out of the single candle. In the background, amidst the balloons and people, was a green-tinged blur. It looked like a toddler with an overly large head. Chu Hua’s face was turned from the camera. She seemed to be looking at the blur.
The phone rang, strident and vibrating harshly across the faux-marble surface. Theresa uttered a breathless shriek and dropped the photo. With a shaky exhale, she grabbed the phone.
“Ling Ling? What’s happened? Mr Teo, your mother’s neighbour, said Chu Hua was taken away in an ambulance. He said she was screaming. What did you do?”
“Mum had a fall. There’s something really wrong with her, Aunty.”
“So, what? You send her away?”
“Aunty, she went completely off the rails today then fainted. She hit her head. In front of Dr Lee. He called the ambulance.”
There was a long silence on the line. Finally, her aunt spoke. “Was it about the girl?”
Gooseflesh broke out over Theresa’s body. “What girl?”
“A-yah,” her aunt said. “I told Chu Hua this would happen. What a mess.”
“What do you mean? What girl?”
Shihong sighed then spoke. “Your mother’s kwee kia. It’s growing too powerful. I suspected at first, when I rang Freddy last week. But I hoped…”
“What’s a ‘kwee kia’? What are you talking about?”
“I knew she should not have done it. But she was so unhappy! She was too strong to be married. There was no room for her hopes, her desires. When you become a wife, you’ll understand.”
“Aunty, please. You’re not making any sense.”
Shihong sighed again. “A kwee kia is a spirit child, created from the soul of a baby who died.”
“Oh Jesus. Aunty, stop.” Aunty Shihong was a great believer in the supernatural. She probably still carried the dried penis of a black dog with her to ward off evil spirits.
“She didn’t make it from a real baby!” her aunt insisted. “It was the idea, the spirit of a baby. Into that baby, she put all of her dreams, her ambitions. Don’t you see? It allowed her to put everything aside and look after you and Freddy.”
Theresa felt sick. “That’s impossible. You can’t just make someone from an idea.”
“Impossible or not, she did,” Aunty Shihong said sadly. “But now it has turned on her.”
“Stop it. I don’t believe in that ghost and spirit rubbish. Aunty, there must be another explanation.” The green-tinged blur in the photo caught her eye, and she flipped it over. “Mum’s sick. She has a mental illness, or dementia…or something. And this girl, it must be some orphaned child, that’s all. The rest of this is just silly superstition.”
“You must listen to me!” Shihong said. “When a kwee kia is first made, it’s easily controlled. But as time goes on, it becomes stronger and stronger. Chu Hua’s has been alive for thirty-eight years.”
Anger boiled up inside Theresa. “Have you been feeding her this nonsense? Do you realise what it’s doing to her?”
“Theresa, if it senses Chu Hua is trying to get rid of it…”
Something rattled outside in the courtyard. Theresa looked up, suddenly aware of the dark corners in the room and the shadows outside the windows.
Theresa covered the phone and crept to the window beside the front door. Sweat broke out across her top lip as she reached for the curtain. It would just be a stray cat. There were thousands of strays in the city. It wasn’t called Kuching, the Malay word for ‘cat’ for nothing.
“Theresa! You must find the jar—”
Theresa disconnected. The last thing she needed was her aunt’s superstitious ravings driving her anxiety through the roof. She whipped back the curtain and glared out into the night.
Nothing. Just as she thought.
She tugged the curtain closed and checked the lock on the front door again, then sat on the couch, resting her head in her hands. She turned her phone on and stared at the screen. Her thumbs hovered, ready to search up ‘kwee kia’.
It was ridiculous, really. You couldn’t make a baby from an idea, and even if you could, it had nothing to do with her mother’s illness. Compulsively, she typed. An image of an ugly baby popped up. There were several versions—some green-skinned, some grey, some with red eyes, some with cloudy eyes, some with pointed ears, some with sharp teeth. All with enlarged heads. Theresa hesitated then clicked on the first article.
…the making of a kwee kia is very black magic. It is made from a foetus that has died or been miscarried. The bomoh (shaman) cuts off the head and carves the bones to make a replacement body. The head is then cooked to obtain corpse oil which is used to anoint the bones.
The kwee kia is kept in a jar in a dark place until called upon to serve its master. There are many legends of how to make a kwee kia, but none for how to get rid of one. Once someone has made a kwee kia, they are destined to have it forever and to pass it on to their descendants…
Theresa switched off her phone and wiped her hands on her jeans, her skin crawling. This was superstitious nonsense. There was no such thing.
Her phone rang. Theresa yelped and almost dropped it. It was the hospital.
“Ms Yang? This is Doctor Teo. I’m sorry to inform you that your mother has escaped from the hospital.”
“What? How could she do that? I thought she was sedated!”
“We don’t know. We’re very sorry. She injured a guard and disappeared. We’ve alerted the police and they’re keeping an eye out for her. If she returns home, please call us.” The doctor hung up.
Theresa blinked. How could this happen? Her tiny, sixty-year-old mother had attacked a guard and broken out of hospital and was now God knows where.
Theresa gasped. The noise outside! Had that been Chu Hua trying to get back into the house? She rushed to the door and unlocked it.
“Ma?” she called into the darkness. There was nothing moving in the dirty yellow circle of light of the streetlamp. She swiped the torch function on her phone and swept the harsh white beam around the courtyard. Nothing.
“…fly to the lychee tree…”
An electric current shot down Theresa’s spine. The singing was coming from the back courtyard. Gripping her phone tight, Theresa crept around the side of the house, sweeping the light into every corner. She edged around the outdoor wet kitchen area and gingerly stepped over the drain. She followed the melody to the small shed tucked into the corner of the garden, beneath the shade of the pomelo tree. Mosquitos sang around her head. She waved them away.
“Ma? Is that you?” Her voice was a bare whisper.
“Ling Ling? Come, come,” her mother called from inside the wood and tin enclosure.
Theresa inched closer until she was in front of the rickety door. “Ma? Are you okay?” She drew the door open and shone the light inside. Ice slithered over her neck and back, drawing goosepimples across her body.
Chu Hua squatted on a small stool, cradling the kwee kia across her lap. The creature was pressed to her breast. A filthy cot sat in one corner, filled with tatty dolls and stuffed animals.
The sound of contented suckling came from the creature. Theresa’s mother swayed unsteadily. In the severe light from the phone, she looked ashen, drained. The bruise on her forehead stood out in stark contrast.
“Ma, can you come out?” Theresa asked quietly.
“Not until Bao-bao’s been fed.” Chu Hua’s eyes drooped, and she wobbled on the stool. The kwee kia’s tiny hands tightened viciously on her flesh. Chu Hua winced. “Shhh, it’s all right,” she muttered faintly.
“Ma, you have to put it down.” There was a hoe leaning against the side of the shed. Theresa reached for it. “You have to let it go.”
Chu Hua smiled dreamily. “But I love her so. I should never have tried to abandon her.”
“I can’t let her die.” Chu Hua’s face crumpled with sudden tears. “I can’t.”
Theresa poked the hoe into the shed and rested it against the little creature’s side. The kwee kia growled and Chu Hua cried out. Blood spurted from her chest. “Ma!” Theresa quickly withdrew the hoe.
“Leave her, please,” Chu Hua begged. “It isn’t her fault.”
Theresa stood helplessly. “What can I do?”
Chu Hua smiled. “You are my real daughter, after all.” Her eyes drifted shut and she toppled sideways, as graceful as a heroine in a tragedy, then lay still. The kwee kia tumbled from her lap with a bleat.
“Ma!” Theresa rushed forward, the hoe raised to strike. The little creature crawled to her mother’s body and snuggled against it, weeping pitifully. It looked up at Theresa with wet eyes, eyes so like her mother’s.
“…into that baby, she put all of her dreams, her ambitions…”
Theresa lowered the hoe. The creature stuck its thumb in its mouth and edged towards the cot, its gaze never leaving the hoe that hung limp in Theresa’s hands. It clambered in and dug around its collection of toys. It came up with a glass jar and held it out. Inside the jar was a collection of tiny blackened bones.
Theresa sat in the back of the taxi, oblivious to the cab’s alarm signalling that they were exceeding the speed limit. She had come to accept that this was how it was over here: some things were dangerous, but could be lived with. She checked her flight ticket again and smiled even as tears rolled down her face. She was going home.
The glass jar, of course, was not with her.
It had been declared as her mother’s remains and would be shipped to her address once cleared of quarantine.
About the Author
Geneve Flynn is a speculative fiction editor from Australia. She has two psychology degrees and only uses them for nefarious purposes. Her horror short stories have been published in various markets, including Flame Tree Publishing, Things in the Well, and the Tales to Terrify podcast. Along with author and editor Lee Murray, Geneve co-edited Black Cranes: Tales of Unquiet Women, an anthology of Southeast Asian horror. The anthology is Bram Stoker Award nominated, and has been listed on Tor Nightfire’s Works of Feminist Horror and Locus magazine’s 2020 Recommended Reading List. Geneve was assistant editor for Relics, Wrecks, and Ruins, a speculative fiction anthology, which features authors such as Neil Gaiman, Ken Liu, Robert Silverberg, Lee Murray, and Angela Slatter. The anthology is the legacy of Australian fantasy author, Aiki Flinthart, and is in support of the Flinthart Writing Residency with the Queensland Writers Centre. Geneve loves tales that unsettle, all things writerly, and B-grade action movies.
About the Narrator
Zhang is a tiny genderqueer nerd who enjoys reading danmei novels in their free time. A small town person with moderately-sized writing dreams, they like writing about low-stakes fluffy queer romances. Read their work in the Mad Scientist’s Journal and Fixi Novo’s Little Basket.