From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Into the Monsoon

The stairway crept upwards, like the disembodied siding of a pyramid. At the first landing, the addict covered her face with her hands and stayed horribly still. Or perhaps, it was the pedestrians walking past that made her seem still—whichever of these it was, Song could not walk by without looking away.

Strange for a beggar, she thought, to not have a cup at her feet.

The sky was a punishing cloud, moving over the city like steel wool. It crushed the smog into the streets and the grime into her skin, and hurried the crowd to seek cover. They pushed past her as she stood on the bridge overlooking rush hour beneath the station.

Song watched the mopeds buzz between the cars below, chasing the traffic lights in swarms. Mopeds were the only moving pieces in a jam, weaving pathways where legally none existed. Everyone else waited in the shadow of the smog, that filter that scattered the sun to a watery glow, and graved the streets in a perpetual haze.

Somewhere in the mob, she knew, was a taxi bringing her father home.

She turned to the addict, who stared vacantly through the gaps between her fingers. Her pupils were bright, the only sign she was alive. Though she was stoned in all other ways, her eyes, those windows by which the world reflected itself, fathomed as they fixed upon the sky.

Song looked to the sky and saw the white glare between the darkness, like the whites of a god’s eyes. The clouds roiled, a god’s pupil, set in a god’s glare, as if, she imagined, all the gods they shared had chosen this place to hurl their collective anger.

The people hurried past, avoiding each other’s faces and unknowing each other’s names.

It wasn’t worth asking if the woman who sat on that landing had a name, much less a face. Because waiting with her would only seem like an impediment, Song walked by.

Saturday was the underground. The black glass reflected Song and her father between the shoulders of a couple on a date. The train was littered with young people—boys in hair from the latest Korean dramas, girls with curls borrowed from a subculture even farther away, leaning into their mp3 players and bored, freshly woken clothes.

Song, in her unprinted spaghetti-strapped top and plain blue jeans, felt a little too simple among these girls touching up their already clear skin. She was a little too yellow against these lilies, not brown enough to be a bumpkin, but a different shade nonetheless.

She wasn’t even Thai.

But blood ran thick between the Southeast Asian nations, and that meant no one would know the difference.

It was late morning, but Song had a late night. She yawned into the palm of her hand.

The underground was a dark tube in whose lighted belly they sat. It seemed a waste to have windows on the unbroken side of the tunnel wall, where the view lacked even the sense of movement, only the reflections of the passengers and the dots of glare that floated about their faces. They knew the stations by way of the P.A., and knew they reached them by the change of people at each stop. The changes got significantly smaller as they reached their destination. It was a long way to Kamphaengphet.

“Did you know, Song? When I take this train during a workday, it’s always full.” Dad adjusted his waist pouch. “Full of people, with nowhere to sit. That’s why it’s good to come early. So I can sit down.”

“Dad!” she whined, playfully. “You’re not an invalid.”

“My leg hurts.”

“That’s lack of exercise.”

“Well, it hurts,” he said, with a smile. Nodding at her bare shoulders, he asked, “Aren’t you cold in that?”

“Nah.” Song patted a fold of the cardigan tied around her waist. “If I was cold, I’d use this.”

Dad leaned back, and gazed into the window. “The thing I don’t like about taking the underground is that there’s nothing to see. It’s just darkness. When I go to work in the morning, it’s depressing.”

“It’s not like the SkyTrain.”

“But the trains are bigger.”

“And you can see the whole city.” Song pulled a tissue from her pocket and wiped her nose. It was getting colder, but not unpleasantly cold. Rather, it added to her tiredness, like an instinct to hibernate. She leaned against her father’s shoulder. Her head rested against a knob of bone, barely pillowed by the textured cotton of his sleeve. Song slid her head until it was angled just enough to keep it in place and closed her eyes.

“Sit up,” said Dad.

Song blinked, slowly, watching her mirror image propped against her father on the glass. Beside their reflections, the couple in front of them held hands. The boyfriend made a habit of peeking at his girl, never looking across the carriage towards them. The girlfriend stared at her boy’s hands, never lifting her gaze beyond their feet. When Song caught her eye, she immediately flipped her head to face away.

“Behave a little,” Dad added, straightening his back.

Song slumped away from her father, resting her hands in loose balls between her legs. She passed her gaze over the inner section of the train —the boys continued to lean against the poles, jabbing at cell phones with headphones plugged into their ears. The girls stared into space, occasionally reaching into their handbags to retrieve their cell phones, altogether less frantic about reaching out than their male counterparts.

The fingers of her left hand brushed the knuckles of her right. Looking down, she realized her legs were exactly two clenched fists apart. Song sat up, closed her knees, and pressed her heels together. She placed her hands where they could be seen, folded on her lap.

The couple got off at the next station. The girlfriend made a quick appraisal of Song and her father at the door. It was a look that was unpleasant on both sides.

Even after that, Song couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.

* * *

Friday was:—

“Why don’t you follow Daddy to Bangkok?”

Her mother was offering the question, but it hang in the air like a command. “Accompany him for the first two weeks, so you can help him settle down.”

Song turned away from her screen. Instinctively, she switched her monitor off. “Why do I need to go to Bangkok?”

“Go with him. It’s just for a couple of weeks. When my leave starts, I’ll follow you there.” Her mother, framed in the doorway in her nightshirt and yesterday’s hair, seemed tired.

“Go,” Mom repeated. It took her a long time to catch her breath. “At least, when you’re there, that woman won’t bother him, you know?”

“You want me to spy on him?” Song glared at her mother’s lazy eyes, the way she seemed to make an effort to hold her hands still.

“Just watch him for me until I’m there myself,” she shrugged. “You can buy some new clothes there, if you like. I’m sure your father will bring his laptop.”

Song grimaced. “That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“You’ll only need to bring a pair of jeans, and three tops. And maybe five changes of underwear.” Her mother’s voice grew distant as she rattled off the numbers.

“I guess it’s only two weeks.”

“There’s a ticket for the same flight as your father next week. If you’re sure you want to go, I’ll book it now.”

“I’ll go.”

Mom lurched down the hallway, taking mincing steps on the marble tiles, which seemed to hurt her feet.

Song waited for her to leave, and turned her monitor on.

* * *

Thursday had been screaming.

Thursday had been a body beating against the door.

It wasn’t that she wanted to hear all this, but she couldn’t help not to. So Song sat with her arms wrapped around her knees between her bed and her cupboard, in a blind spot that worked even if her door wasn’t already locked.

Mom didn’t whimper. She had more dignity than that. She continued to rail even as her body thudded against the door. It was a matter of rights.

Mom was always right.

“If I wanted to see someone while you were gone—I have even more right to be lonely than you do, raising your kid alone.”

Dad was always silent, or too quiet for her to hear.

“You’re a father. That woman is old enough to be your daughter.”

And then she choked.

Mom was always right.

Song was crying. It had nothing to do with her, but Song cried from her sheer hatred of being able to hear. She cried the tears of an insomniac, of the kind of person too lazy to run away.

Song had more dignity than that.

Maybe her father chose that moment to be kind.

It was a long silence that followed.

* * *

So Saturday was Dad showing her Chatuchak Market.

“You can find anything in this place,” was what he said, dropping their tokens into the gate collection slot.

The subway opened into designer knick knack stalls, where the crystal-covered fashions fascinated away Song’s time. She bought cell phone cases for her mp3s. Dad wanted to look for pyjamas. They got lost in front of the farmer’s market, and mutually hated the front rows with their kitschy cartoon tees.

Song found matching appetizer bowls for the Japanese porcelain set her mother had bought in Singapore ten years ago.

Dad conceded that the make of many of the bargains was cheap, and the good pieces much too overpriced.

Plates were stacked into just-stable towers on tightly packed tables, hoping to fall. Teapots stuck their spouts within reach of careless hands. Tourists bent themselves around their peers to avoid catastrophes.

Song and her father escaped them by moving farther into the covered side of the market. Within the span of five stalls, it had grown dark enough for the self-generated electric lights of the vendors to matter. Song walked behind Dad. Oncoming traffic flattened against the nearest wall to let them through. She had to keep up with Dad, though it was more common for her to pass him by mistake.

He made frequent stops to look at imitation backpacks, and the occasional pair of shorts. “Should I get this?” he asked her, holding up khaki Bermudas with an American flag trim.

“If you’re just sleeping in them, that’s alright.”

“How much?” he asked the shopkeeper, who pulled out a calculator, solar-powered, Song noted, in a purely fluorescent hive, and entered a sum.

“Too much.” Dad put down the pants, grabbed Song by the arm, and walked on.

A drop of water hit her arm. She watched it slide down, by murky light, a clear fragment of rain followed by dozens of its brothers. She sidestepped the stream that leaked from the pinpoint holes in the roof—a cavernous presence so far away, they were under their own sky. The stars were scant in the darkness, but kissed the alleyways with their tears.

The people they passed all skipped between shopping spaces rather than touch the water. Her slippers slid over the wet cement drain covers that formed the cobblestones for their path. Cockroaches flitted between the corners of tables and crates. The damp stirred the must beneath their feet, the scent of pickling alcohol and sea salt.

It was warm under the cover of rain. The heat pressed the sweat close to her skin, trapping the warmth even further into her body. The air, locked in by the weather, was still.

The stalls around them hawked prayer goods and Tupperware. Porcelain Kuan Yins and brass Buddhas sat in plastic lotuses that glowed from pink to blue. All around her, the smiles of Chinese Hell gods flickered. Business was slow, as thin as the purple arms of incense drifting out of the altars tucked prominently at the back of the shops. The rain rattled the aluminium tiles up above. She heard the hint of thunder in their applause.

Song lost her father for the third time. She looked up, wanting to follow the stars though she didn’t for the life of her know how. So she crept closer to one of the leaks in the ceiling, letting the stream wash off her feet. The water felt thick, like oil, sliding into the spaces between her toes.

The smell of brine became stronger than the smell of mould. It was a suffocating smell—an underground smell. She, and the stream that ran under the uneven slabs beneath her, were being buried in the cavern’s current.

Her ears caught the buzz of the fluorescent lights, an omnipresent being who thrummed through the wiring of each stall, attracting insects with a taste for its danger. The taps the flies made hitting the plastic light covers was a familiar echo, however soft the sound.

In the gloom, her slippers looked covered in rusty mud.

“Song!” Dad held her shoulder in a tight grip.

“Dad!” Song turned to her father, who pointed to a tunnel walled in backpacks to his right.

“That’s the way out,” he said.

“I think we should stop for a drink.” Song rubbed her throat. “My mouth feels dry.”

They passed a café patched together out of bamboo fencing and straw mats on their way out. The back wall was covered in framed newspaper clippings—of the stall itself—from Britain, Germany, and obscure corners of the EU. A large tin chest bordered one side of the stall, packed with ice and canned drinks. A long table continued the side, topped with a portable stove and kettles. Coffee beans sat in jars, their flavours clearly labelled in English.

Inside the café, there were all of four tables. One was already occupied by a German family of four, who were busy arguing their children into their seats. Their backpacks cluttered most of a second table. Dad walked over the outstretched feet of that family’s patriarch to get to his chat.

Song ordered a latte for Dad.

When their drinks came, he took a look at the bottle of greenish-black beverage with its tag that pictured a plant and no roman lettering, and asked, “What’s that?”

“I don’t know. The menu said it was herbal tea.” She sipped a little from her straw. “Tastes like grass jelly drink.”

“Ugh.” Dad leaned back in his chair, and adjusted his waist. “I still haven’t found my pants yet.”

“You were looking at a lot of them just now.”

“They’re not good quality.” Dad took out his wallet, and began counting small change. “I was thinking we should go to Chidlom to look properly. At least there, we know the quality’s good.”

“Not today. We’ve already walked a lot today.”

“We can go home after this.” He tilted sideways to reach into his pocket, pulling out a handful of coins. “Do we have enough food for dinner tonight?”

The German family prepared to leave. The father of the clan bumped into Dad as he got up, scattering a cluster of Dad’s coins onto the floor. He nodded at Dad, uttering, “Sorry,” and walked off, his youngest child in tow.

“Bastard,” Dad murmured, when the pair had gone.

Song leaned over the table to help with the coins. Her feet were still wet. Her soles slid on mud made up from the dust on her slippers and the water from the sky. She righted herself before her father finished his side, silver five baht hexagons in her hand. The table behind him was now occupied by a Thai grandmother and her grandchild. She smiled when she caught the grandmother’s eyes.

The other woman quickly looked away.

Her father came back into view, blocking the grandmother’s face.

Song wriggled her toes. They slid into place with a slick, sticky feeling.

* * *

On Sunday, they escaped the rain to look for Dad’s pants. The elevated walkway of Chidlom Station was relatively emptier than usual, as the crowd opted to be marooned in the air-conditioned confines of the surrounding shopping complexes rather than go home.

Song and her father ducked into the Central building, barely missing a wave of fresh spray from the monsoon over the balcony rail. The security guard opened the door with a bow. Inside, it was another one of Central’s weekly sales. The Casual department was co-ed, filled with branded, yet generically designer goods. Women milled about the discounted shoe racks near the entrance, a promotional spill-over from the actual women’s shoe department downstairs. Further down were the bargain bins, crowded to the top with out-of-season blouses.

The floor’s layout blocked the path to the escalators with accessory counters, or, as they found as they entered the Men’s Department, promotional sales racks jammed between the entrances and exits.

Dad immediately began picking through a promotional bin, thumbing through folds of navy dress pants. “Do you have this in 36?” he said, before the shop assistant could ask.

“Please wait, Sir.” Thai women, Song noticed, tended to speak in a singsong, more so if they were being polite, with a drawn lilt as their sentences tapered off. It was easily misread as an attempt at affection, but really, they spoke that way even amongst themselves.

“Size 36, no colour. We have brown colour.” Their shop assistant was in her early twenties, probably younger than Song. Typical of Thai working ladies, she’d drawn her hair back in a tight bun, with a fishnet. The store’s uniform was a conservative dress suit, which she wore with dark stockings and stocky dress shoes. Unlike school-going girls, she wore no makeup. Like everyone else, she avoided Song’s eyes.

Dad thumbed through a pile of pinstriped designs. Half-glancing at Song, he picked up a pair of shorts and asked, “How’s this?”

“Dad, that’s too young.”

“Too young? Really?” Dad picked up a long version of the same design instead, and indicated to the shop assistant. “How about this? Size 36?”

The shop assistant crouched beneath the bin, pulling aside curtains hiding stock. She flipped through stacks of plastic-wrapped pants ironed flat, before pulling out a packet. “No Size 36, but this one—”, she unwrapped the pants, spreading it out across the bin. Pointing to the waistline, she ran her hand over the back pocket. Then, pulling out a pair of the pinstriped pants Dad had wanted, she repeated her actions. Pointing again to the unwrapped pants, she continued, “This only Size 35, but different.”

Dad shook his head. Pointing to the pinstriped pair, he said, “This one. Size 36.”

“No Size 36. But maybe you can try this one. This one different.” She ran her hand across the waistline of the unwrapped pants.

Dad feigned a laugh. “No, no. I need Size 36. Size 35 is too small for me.”

The shop assistant turned to Song. Frowning, she barked a few sentences in curt, commanding Thai.

Song shook her head. “I’m sorry. I don’t speak Thai.”

The shop assistant’s frown deepened. With a sigh, she ran a few more sentences in Thai, a little slower this time, but no less curt.

Song continued to shake her head. “I’m sorry. I’m just not Thai.”

Her father put his arm around her. “She’s my daughter,” he said, pointing to himself. “My baby.”

Song snapped out of his embrace.

The shop assistant sighed. She approached a neighbouring counter and began asking questions of the assistants there. When she returned, she’d switched on her smile. She picked up the pinstriped pants and spread it against the unwrapped pants, so the waistlines paralleled each other. “This,” indicating the unwrapped pair, “Little bit bigger,” with a pinching motion with one hand for effect.

Dad inspected both pairs carefully. He exclaimed, “Yes, this one’s a bit bigger.”

“You try both?” The shop assistant offered them to him, and pointed her whole arm to some distant spot to their left. “Changing room over there.”

“I’ll try this first.” Dad motioned around his waist. “Afterwards, you measure to cut?”

“Yes.” The shop assistant smiled with a slight bow.

Song followed her father to the changing room. There were no seats nearby, so she stood outside the mirrored door, hanging about near a passage that led to the lifts. Middle-aged upper class women walked out of the lifts, their brightly coloured print blouses matched with yellow gold chains. Almost uniformly, their hair was dyed and coiffed into the same large roll around their heads. Powder filled in the wrinkles on their cheeks like plaster siding, and their rouge was always a splash too red, though their lips were often perfect bows. They came with their husbands, retired men who leaned on their wives’ arms with matching Rolexes, glad to follow their spouses to town.

They paid Song no mind, though it was expected, and Song, as she always was when faced with Thais out on the town, wondered if she was remarkably underdressed.

Though it wasn’t as though she was the only person dressed in jeans and a sleeveless top in the room. The women like her wandered the floor with their partners, sometimes in skimpier blouses than she cared to try. It seemed the expatriate men preferred darker skinned ladies than themselves, darker than most Thais this far north, with firm breasts. While it wasn’t unusual for these men to be moderately young, many were clearly scraping fifty, hanging on to tufts of hair behind their ears by minutes.

The girls that accompanied them, unless clearly long term companions in their forties, or better yet, laden with small children, were always young.

The changing room door clicked open. Dad wore the unwrapped pants. They fit snugly around his belly. “I think this is the more comfortable pair.” He kicked out a pants leg, noting the way the edge completely covered his foot. Looking up, he waved at their shop assistant, who nodded with another smile.

She came over with measuring tape. “You want to cut, Sir?”

“Yes, please.” Dad stood still as the woman measured his leg from the waist down, and wrote the numbers in pen on her palm.

“Everything alright?” he asked.

“Yes.” She waved an arm at the open changing room door. “Please change and give the pants to me.”

While her father changed, the shop assistant waited by her side. Rolling up her measuring tape, she smiled and said, “I didn’t know you were his daughter just now.”

“Yes, he’s my father.” The smile on Song’s face felt as if they were pulled apart by hooks in her dimples. She wondered if her smile seemed stiff.

The shop assistant nodded cheerfully. “Where are you from?”

“We’re from Malaysia,” she replied, genuinely glad to be rid of the question. Her smile softened into place. “What’s your name?”

“My name?” The shop assistant tapped her collarbone. “My name is Mun.”

“I’m Song.” She couldn’t help but nod a slight bow. “Pleased to meet you.”

“Pleased to meet you too.”

* * *

It drizzled on the trip over, just enough to emulsify the oil out of the streets and dirty the buildings. By the time Song pulled into the station, the rain had receded with the promise of bigger things, as punishing clouds hung ominously in midair—a sign that the walk home would be a run.

Shoulder to shoulder with the platform was the shell of an unfinished hotel. Wild dogs rested on its top floor, away from the water. The occasional bloom of graffiti climbed up the pillars like feral ivy. Moss mottled the bare cement more acutely than age.

From the platform, she could see the lights go on the cross of the church at the start of her street. It was most visible as a church from the platform. At eye level, it was a large, stocky building, bordered by thick rendered walls. The entrance was an electric sliding gate usually left slightly ajar. It bordered an empty lot gone to grass, that shimmered with dew in the after-rain.

She climbed down to the one-way lane that passed the church, balancing herself on the walls of a narrow, uncovered ditch bordering the abandoned hotel. She carried a bag of bread that she wound tighter around her fingers. Queen Bread from Siam Paragon was Dad’s favourite breakfast—a tall loaf with an undulating, liberally buttered top. It was completely white, but saved her the trouble of cooking at dawn.

Song avoided oncoming motorcycles by tiptoeing on one side of the ditch. Mushrooms sprouted from grassy patches that spread under the wire fence. Spiral-shelled snails raced them to new ground, their ability to navigate the cement dependent on the damp.

Beads of water began to hit her shoulders, tiny specks that began to cry. Song tied the bread bag shut completely, and took larger steps.

The water followed her as she rounded the corner of the church, where the pathways widened and first bars began. By now, the raindrops were rippling about her feet, bouncing their puddles against her ankles.

The early girls began work as the offices closed elsewhere. While the day was still light, they sat on the canopied verandas of their establishments, gossiping over smokes and Strawberry Fanta. Some stuck to the corner noodle stalls, slurping down bowls of bright red soups festooned with fresh cut chillies. Others just arrived, on the backs of motorcycle taxies, or walked in with folded umbrellas.

Real girls were simple, with fresh, unadorned faces. They clipped up long hair with plastic combs, and wore plain tops over well-fitted jeans.

The lady boys were less clothed and more thickly powdered, tottering in heels that faced their toes against the floor. They gathered on the street in gaggles, avoiding the staffed bars, and the staff of the bars in particular.

Between the watering holes, on every alley corner, were altars, set in squares of meticulously white tiles. Bodhisattvas stared benevolently out of roofed houses on stilts, toasted with glasses of Strawberry Fanta and full censers of incense. The joss sticks were still warm at the start of the night. The embers at their tips would glow for hours, keeping the gods warm.

The sky opened its black maw, drenching the road in its own oily filth. Song soldiered through the rising muck, refusing to run on the uneven paving, as the raindrops battered themselves into a wave that lapped at her knees. The girls jogged around her for the nearest cover. The eating ones paid their tab with haste, vying to cross the street to their bars before the potholes took on enough water to splash them. The drinking ones receded further into the yellow-lit holes in the wall. Vendors packed their stoves and wheeled their businesses home.

In minutes, the street was empty, save for its spectators. Trapped in their glowing windows, they watched the pummelling rain, so dense, it poured over the landscape like a fog. Without looking up, Song counted the bars to her apartment, passing the travel agent’s office before the convenience store, that led to the pizza parlour two doors away from her front gate. There was a shrine next to the guardhouse leading into her building. She watched the pavers as she walked, waiting for a swath of white tiles to mark her next turn.

It was quiet in the middle of the storm. Her ears became accustomed to the drumming of the asphalt, and what seemed like a torrent seemed to slow as she ventured farther into its depths. She counted the number of drops that pounded the backwash, as a grinding, blurred noise began to build in the distance. She remembered how it flew at her in a physical shriek, the sound of the water that reached up to swallow her whole.

Song gasped for air as the world went black, as the arms, the rain, the gods dragged her into their depths—to a world where sound was muffled by the darkness, that smelled of the must from the monsoon drains. The darkness itself clung to her nostrils and her eyes, into which her screams were returned with the vague sense of many eyes and mocking laughter. It ripped into the denim of her jeans, biting into her flesh with jagged teeth that caught on loose threads, tearing further towards her bones. She rode in the rain’s belly, in the acrid, sticky hole where the water rattled against the walls, where her skin felt digested by the acid taste of many hands pulling her legs apart.

It was water, she told herself, that sluiced over her thighs, boiling and angry as it salted the cuts there. It was water that spilled out of her, thick with oil and reeking of metal, from veins she didn’t know she had until they tore when the bodies in the dark took her.

It was water that she was thrown into when they were done, where the darkness slid free and she crumpled against solid ground.

But it was the rain that echoed the tires as they growled down the alleyway. The rain that washed her eyes open, until she was able to watch her blood go thin, blending into the colour of the mud between her fingers.

She got up because the rain was gentle again, falling like a light veil across her shoulders. She walked out the alley into a street she recognized, in a direction she felt rather than cared for. She found the stairs that crept upwards, like the siding of a disembodied pyramid.

The others, those people who would stare at her as she climbed, did so, at the cuts that had long since washed out, at the expanses of bare skin for which she was known.

On the first landing, the addict covered her face with her hands and stayed horribly still.

Song slid down beside her. Reaching out, she pulled her hands off her face, and shut her eyes.

monsoonA.M. Muffaz is a Malaysian writer based in San Francisco. Her stories have previously appeared in Chiaroscuro, Gothic.Net and the Bandersnatch anthology (Prime Books). A non-fiction essay about her experiences participating in a Malay exorcism as a teenager was published as part of Morbid Curiosity Cures the Blues (Scribner) in October 2009.