The pig came out of the man’s trunk, and it looked as heavy as a fat toddler. Its skin was roasted a golden brown, glossy and crackling. The man heaved it out of the back of his Honda City, carrying it on a long wooden tray, the pig wrapped in brown paper and Chinese newspaper. He placed it on the altar-table, next to the old man’s coffin.
Funerals made the best business, and this week there had been one every night. Boon lit a cigarette and waited for the chanting and prayers to end. Ahead of him, a dark-skinned boy looked morose, with long floppy hair, not participating. When the prayers ended, a girl in a conical gunny hat stood next to him, in a white t-shirt and joss stick in hand. He grabbed her shoulder and kissed her on the temple.
Boon sniggered. Young people and their public displays. Unbecoming at an old man’s funeral. Time to chop up the pig, but first its head. Boon removed the cleaver from his bag, sharpened just this morning. Plop came the hog’s head, and he set it aside. He drew one long line down the top of its back, cutting the animal into half.
It was almost noon but the curtains were still drawn. Adrian listened for the jangle of keys and the grill door sliding and clicking before he rose from bed. He turned on the lava lamp and watched the orange blobs, ascending and descending in a slow dance, its glow lighting Ashley’s silhouette next to him.
Her grandfather’s cremation had happened yesterday at Batu Gantong, at the United Hokkien Cemetery, all done and dusted. Now she could rest and he could nurse her grief. But he could not get the pig out of his mind. Its eyes dug out and charred, and the butcher man, looking at him with those dark circles under his eyes, his cleaver gleaming and sharp, cutting the animal so quickly into pieces. His mother would ask if he touched the funeral foods, and he would say no, the crackling skin oily and delicious on his fingers only yesterday.
To get strength for the day, he looked to Iron Maiden’s Eddie The Trooper on the large poster on the wall facing his bed, now yellowed and flaking, but still a symbol of power, ready to charge at the world. It had been there for the past ten years, a memorabile from his teenage years. He kept it there to rival his mother’s statues of the Virgin Mary outside, for here in his bedroom, he was free to worship whoever he wanted.
The keys jangled and the grill slid and clicked. Adrian waited another five minutes, in case the woman turned back for something she forgot. He kissed Ashley on the cheek, threw the covers back, opened his door and headed to the kitchen. He would make beans on toast, slathered with margarine not butter, scrambled eggs, two rashers of bacon, and a cup of black coffee, all the foods she loved.
The human tongue is eight centimetres long, longer for men and shorter for women. Ashley saw the demons licking the pig on all sides, their tongues long and thin, slithery and wet with glob. They gave the pig its oily sheen. Hungry and devouring, the three demons eyed her and then winked, female floating heads with long, bloody entrails. The si lo ban. Or hantu penanggal, from the Malay word tanggal, body removed or taken off.
She told Adrian not to eat the roast hog, but Adrian and her male cousins, Billy, Charlie, Frankie and Benson, were already crowding round the butcher, each holding a paper plate out, a comical Dickensian scene in her mind.
The pig was served on the last night of the wake, an offering to her dear Grandpa. But it wasn’t the si lo ban that annoyed her, but the Sai Kong himself, the Taoist priest, who had come to give her a dressing down.
“Who’s that boy?” he asked, looking in the direction of the five boys.
“My friend,” she said.
“Malay or Indian?”
“Serani,” she said.
The priest had a white beard and he wore a yellow robe, but underneath he donned tracksuit pants and trainers. He looked kind, if not for his harsh tone.
“Tell him not to eat the pig,” he said, walking away.
Ashley looked towards Adrian. The boys were jostling round the table, laughing and popping siew yoke into their mouths. Crispy, melt-in-your-mouth, oh my lard goodness! Billy held a large chunk of skin between his fingers, crispy and glazed, the size of an origami paper, and bit into it like bak kwa. Then she saw Adrian picking up the pig’s head and pretending to wear it like a mask or a helmet. The boys laughed. Too late now, Ashley thought.
“You bring shame on the Westwood name,” his mother said. “You’re unequally yoked, like two oxen pulling a cart, one weak, one strong. What communion has light with darkness?”
The words cut, every word a scoop out of his soul, till there was nothing left. She held the rosary beads on her right hand, chanting a Sword of Sorrow.
Beloved Mother, teach us to accept all our sufferings because of our sins. Beloved Mother, Queen of the Martyrs, give us the courage you had in all your sufferings.
Adrian scowled. It was the murmur and the nagging, like water dripping, a tap leaking. No wonder he was turning nocturnal now, waking up later to avoid her, staying up all night so he could have the house to himself, peace and quiet. In their single-storey bungalow in Gelugor, they skirted around each other, a danse macabre. With Ashley, his mother’s fury was cold and condescending. They hid in his room usually, or went out in the day and came home past midnight.
“Did you eat the funeral foods?” she asked, finishing her chant. The television was mute in the living room, but the pictures danced. A tall thin man in a suit and a moustache talked in animated gestures with a curly blond haired woman, in a restaurant or hotel.
“No,” he said.
“I can tell when you’re lying,” his mother said.
She got up suddenly from her chair and slapped him on the face. Adrian was taken aback by her strength, but he kept still, letting the pain spread on his cheek. His eyes turned glossy and hot.
“Dirty, filthy boy,” she said. “Cheap things all around you.”
Adrian went into his room and slammed the door, startling Ashley from her sleep.
Ashley lay in bed with her eyes open, the waft of grease spreading into the room. The skeletal figure on the poster frightened her, with its wooden spear and metal tip, a bloodied sword and the Union Jack. Its teeth were long and bare, its eyes two dots of light in a mass of black.
The room spun and swirled in the opposing direction of the ceiling fan. It must be the heat and the exhaustion, Ashley thought. It had been so hot all five days of the wake. The blue canopy, the dust from the ground, the cousins laughing and smoking. The Chinese orchestra, the cymbals, the trumpets, the opera. Then there were the bells chiming, the paper ingots burning and the Taoist priest chanting. The sounds and smells absorbed into her being, now churning and swirling, threatening to expel like vomit.
“A heatstroke maybe?” Adrian said, stroking her hair after coming into the room, laying a tray of food and coffee on his desk.
“I can’t eat,” she said, sitting up. “Hey, there’s a mark on your cheek.”
Adrian removed her hand gently away from his face.
“Your eyes are wet,” she said.
“What happened?” she asked.
He looked down.
“Your mum again?”
“Your eyes… they look like fire.”
He shrugged. “Mum’s out to Aunt Becky’s for lunch.”
Breakfast-lunch in bed, treatment for a queen. The house was theirs for the next two hours, or however many until his mother came home from her sister’s opposite the road.
“Do you have Panadol?” she asked. It felt too late, her body caving in on itself. She heard the bedside drawer opening, the sound of foil tearing. And Adrian holding a cup to her mouth, she swallowed it with coffee.
Ashley saw the pig arrive, wrapped in crackling, crispy brown paper, like the ones used in school to write Chinese calligraphy, or to wrap novellas passed underneath wooden desks when the teachers weren’t looking. The paper had splotches of grease, and the butcher carried it like a sleeping child from the boot of his car to the altar by Grandpa. The butcher was young, and he wore a red-collared shirt with yellow words in Hokkien saying: “Kim Guan Seng Chiap Kim Tu, H/Phone: 012-5172789.”
Grandpa sat on a plastic chair by the altar, his face warm and glowing. He inspected the oranges, green apples, bowls of rice, chopsticks, and LED lotus flowers prepared for his funeral rites.
“Where are your shoes, girl?” A question he always asked when Ashley was a little girl, running in the garden without her slippers on. Ashley opened her mouth to answer but no sound emerged.
Next to them, the butcher chopped the hog’s head and it rolled onto the dusty ground. Adrian bent down and licked its snout.
Suddenly, Grandpa went up in flames, together with the mansion made of paper and bamboo, the Mercedes, the motorbike, the flat screen TV, the male and female servants, and all the bags of gold, which he did not own in real life, stacks of paper money stamped The Bank of Hell.
The bonfire grew and burned. They were now in the streets outside. The Taoist priest said to hold hands, all children and grandchildren, and not break the link, lest Grandpa struggle to make it to the afterlife. But there, in the middle of the fire, a pig man waited for her.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Adrian, where was Adrian? He would not participate in Taoist rituals, she knew. And she did not expect him or want him to. She thought of Grandpa’s favourite food; pig’s organ soup. Tongue, intestines, stomach, liver, kidney, brain.
The pig man was taller than six feet. He was a Minotaur but with a pig’s head and a large groin. Hikayat Raja Babi. Napoleon and Snowball. Tu Pak Kwai, bringing her on a Journey to the West. Horrid, gory, with trotters standing firm on concrete. Four legs good, two legs bad.
Her male cousins escorted her into the paper palanquin, waiting for her by the bonfire.
“San Chie, San Chie, San Chie,” they chanted. Third sister, their name for her.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Four legs good, two legs better. The Minotaur with the pig’s head held a wooden spear with a metal tip, a bloodied sword and a Union Jack. Under the blue canopy at the altar, she saw Adrian on all fours on the table. He had an impossibly long unhuman tongue, and he was kissing the roast pig, headless now. Caressing it like a lover, licking the skin, biting its flesh, tearing its ribs with his hands, his hair flopping about his face, the dark long tangles now greasy with fat. What was happening to Adrian?
Ashley sat in the palanquin as the carriage approached the pig man, tall and erect. Was this Adrian too? The Minotaur? With his sword, the Minotaur slashed the palanquin and it fell quickly apart. Then he cut the shoulder lines off her white t-shirt. With his spear, he pointed at her exposed belly, then drove the metal tip down hard. Eddie the Trooper, in pig face, come out of the poster to murder her.
“Cheap, cheap, cheap,” Adrian’s mother chanted.
“Chie, chie, chie,” Ashley’s cousins chanted. Sister, sister, sister.
Where was Adrian, where the hell was he? From the corner of her eye, Ashley saw him picking up the roasted pig’s head off the ground. He wore it over his face and came running towards her, brandishing the butcher’s cleaver. Too late, Ashley thought. The Minotaur’s pig head was between her legs.
Adrian’s mother sat in the living room with the television muted. Her hair was a wispy white, the lines cutting deeper into her drawn, haggard face. Her skin was almost translucent, as ageing does to thin the epidermis. She now had a glistening sheen on her, always wet, always shining.
Picking up her right hand, Adrian kissed the frail fingers. The hand that feeds him, the hand that also frustrates him. Almost skeletal now, she could be Eddie’s mother.
In his room, Ashley had woken. She sat up in bed with pillows propped behind her. Adrian lifted her blouse and examined her skin; there were cuts on her shoulders, the straight lines thin but growing, slowly bruising and slightly raised. He examined her belly and found a large swelling, with patches of red, purple and green, like a galaxy, Whirlpool, Pinwheel, Cartwheel, Blackeye. He put his face on her belly and recited the only Hail Mary he knew: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
Her inner thighs were pawed and scratched, not with claws, but with something akin to hooves or trotters, for the bruises were patch-like, a haematoma, with lacerations. There were bite marks too, bigger than human teeth, which sunk and tore into her skin. But the important point, Adrian thought as his face approached her thighs, was that the organs inside were intact and functioning—perfect, beautiful. Tongue, intestines, stomach, liver, kidney, brain.
It was almost dinner time and Ashley would be hungry. The bacon rashers were cold, the scrambled eggs like still life and the toast soggy with beans. He picked up the breakfast-lunch from his desk and went into the kitchen. At the counter, he watched the back of his mother’s head, her figure unmoving. What was beneath her skull? One day he would open it, and take a good look inside.
Adrian tied his hair up with a rubber band, always getting in the way. He ate a piece of cold bacon, licked his fingers, then popped the rest of the plate into the microwave.
The human tongue is eight centimetres long, longer for men and shorter for women. From the slit in the door, Ashley saw the demons licking the old woman on all sides, their tongues long and thin, slithery and wet. They gave the woman an oily sheen.
Wan Phing Lim was born to Malaysian parents in 1986 in Butterworth, Penang. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK, USA, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. She lives in Penang and ‘Two Figures in a Car’ (Penguin SEA, 2021) is her first short story collection.
Lay Hoon aka Arty Guava is an Illustrator and Graphic Designer based in Vancouver. She grew up in Malaysia and spent most of her adult life in Singapore before moving to Canada. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Bioengineering but chose to make a career switch after about 1 year of working in the field. Art and Design have always been her calling. She is passionate about culture, people and nature and how these themes interact with each other.