by Wan Phing Lim
The rain brings down the slush from the hills and the river is raging. After Asr, Afiq walks to the river and sees the girl, the one with the blonde hair. She is a Goldilocks, from the story he read in school, all those years ago. The girl with the three bears. She wears a white shirt and a green skirt. He feels afraid, because he has been seen, but then he feels proud, like a stag who has been noticed. He preens, feels a throbbing and an excitement. He doesn’t want to frighten her, but he wants to show himself to her. This is his only chance, his golden jackpot—he may never see her again. His only hope is that she doesn’t scream, but she does. She turns and runs away, then trips. Afiq pulls his sarong up and crosses the river. There is a huge pipe that he can balance himself on.
The girl is in a ditch, there is blood along her nose. Her very sharp nose, like the woman on his living room couch. Afiq pushes her eyelids up, he wants to see the colour of her eyes, if they are similar to the woman on the couch, the fairuz, the permata. Her eyelids are warm, his hands are shaking, hands that are made for weaving and for art, hands that are not supposed to shake. He is, or would have been, a skilled craftsman, not just a housekeeping boy at Golden Sands. But the eyes are not blue as he expects. They are brown, like the mud, like the river. Shame he doesn’t have a pair of scissors with him, but why would he? He is wearing a sarong, there is no place to tuck a pair of scissors in here. He may hurt himself, so no. He must concentrate on the gold, on the yellow. He twirls a lock between his fingers, like wearing a ring. A silky golden ring. The hairs radiate against his dark brown skin, though he is lighter on the inside, because goddammit the sun. He yanks and yanks some more, balls strands into his fist until his grip is strong. Why did he have to wear the sarong today? Because he had just finished his Asr and was coming out for some air. He does not want golden hair sticking out of his chequered sarong.
Blood trickles down her freckled face. He pulls too hard and there are spots of red on the golden locks. The texture is coarse, not fine like Chinese or Japanese hair. It smells like leaves and wet soil, with a hint of girl’s shampoo, fresh off the head. He thinks about lifting her school shirt, but thinks again. The girl is barely fourteen, or fifteen, though he couldn’t tell with these Mat Salleh girls. Afiq holds the clump in his hand, the drops of blood slowly disappearing into the red soil underneath his shuffling slippers. He shakes the hair in his hand, hoping it will “air out” the way he used to “air out” cigarette smoke so his mother wouldn’t smell it. His Goldilocks, his gold, his emas. His brother, Arif, had been the anak emas. But no matter, it is time to keep his hands busy. He could pleat the hair, weave it, braid it into little keychains, into songket, anyaman, baskets, pouches. Into little fancy bracelets that girls like to wear, like he had seen in school, though school was such a long time ago now. He had not been very good in school so he had to make do with his hands his mother said.
At home the mannequin is watching blank television, a gift from the hotel management. During renovation, they had replaced all the guest rooms with flat screen TVs and were throwing out the old ones. Afiq always had a habit of bringing gifts home. Sampah, his mother calls them. He wonders if he was not the sampah of the family, the anak sampah. Afiq stands in front of the mannequin with hands on his hips, blocking her view and hiding the lump of hair behind him. He found her one night, bald and broken, in the dumpsite by the loading bay near the hotel car park. She had belonged to the batik boutique at the lobby. Afiq looks at the mannequin, her eyes blue and sad, unblinking, with lashes painted on them. No matter how he had tilted her she could never sit in a proper L-shape. So he had broken her legs so she could sit on the sofa with him at night, like a real human being. Now he brings her legs into the bedroom with him. Her face is a little dusty, and he makes a mental note to clean it, and to check on his mother later.
He knows the time of day by the smell of burning smoke. The sky is turning a dark blue, the orange lamp posts lighting the small lanes of Kampung Sungai Emas. The crickets are singing and the river is still raging behind his home. Afiq likes walking to work, it gives him time to think. It makes him less conspicuous and the air is cooler, fresher at night, despite the neighbours’ open burning of leaves and plastic bags. The forty or so wooden homes are tucked in a silent compound, away from the tourists browsing the night market along Jalan Batu Ferringhi, and one belongs to his mother. Afiq is counting the days, and these are to be her last days. The smell coming from his mother’s room towards the back of the house is getting stronger. If he should stop feeding her, she could stop soiling the sheets. And where is Arif, her favourite son? Abah of course, is waiting for her in the grave. Ha! When the smell gets too strong, he’ll have to bring the mannequin into his room, too.
Did you hear, a girl has gone missing.
A Mat Salleh girl, from the British school.
Yes, in Sungai Emas.
Isn’t that where you live?
Yes, yes… but…
But so what if there’s a serial killer lurking around?
Nurul, oh Nurul. It is fate that he meets her again at the lobby, just as he is starting his night shift and she is closing up the boutique. Nurul with the dark brown eyes and the pink tudung and the pink lipstick. Nurul the boutique supervisor who had thrown out the mannequin that Afiq had rescued. Would he ever tell her? No.
But no one would kill a foreigner in this part of town, he says, they’d be in big trouble.
She wasn’t a tourist though, she was a student.
I hope she’s ok, he says, I hope she’s not dead.
Nurul looks sadly at him. So where were you today, Fiq? Why didn’t you answer your phone?
Afiq is not a liar. He has never lied in his entire life. In Islam, there is punishment for liars. I was in bed, he says.
Yes. After he had come back from the river, he had gone back to bed holding the lock of hair. Will he ever invite Nurul to his home? Wouldn’t his mother like that? Nurul is a real girl, a Muslim girl, friendly, courteous. But Nurul would have to meet his dying mother and sit with his mannequin girlfriend on the couch, unless he could somehow stash her away, behind his house by the chicken coup. Not a good idea.
How’s your mother?
Is she still on medication?
Yes, but she cannot get out of bed.
Insyallah, Fiq, she will get better soon.
Afiq does not like stealing time from work, and he does not like going near the sea, but Nurul insists that they sit by the rocks of Moonlight Bay, just for an hour or two. There is always a lock of hair in his pocket for when he is jittery or nervous, but tonight he has left the golden lock at home.
What is it? Nurul coos. Are you thinking about your Abah again?
Maybe. He shrugs.
Fiq, the tsunami happened fourteen years ago, Allahyarhamha he must be so proud of you today and you know that.
With Nurul, he could unwrap her tudung, touch her hair, hold her head close to his chest. Except that Nurul would not let him, at least not in public. But what was the point of coming out here, in the darkness, by the sea, with hardly anyone around if nothing was going to happen? On many nights, he had smoothed over the mannequin’s polished breasts, which had no nipples. Perhaps the boutique owners thought it wise to use a modest storefront model. And Nurul is the embodiment of that—Malay modesty, Malaysian culture—values to promote to Western tourists, a modest store with a modest mannequin and a modest supervisor, a girl who knows how to tutup aurat, to cover herself. But he wants to see if Nurul’s breasts are similar, so he necks her, slowly at first, until she relents, and he slides his hand beneath her top to pull her brassiere down. Nurul yelps and slaps him on the cheek. The sensation burns his face. He feels a flash of shame, anger, pulls his hand back.
You’re crazy, Afiq!
He half walks, half runs, and when he reaches home, he pinches his nose, whisks the mannequin off the couch and slams his bedroom door shut. He opens his bedside drawer to pull out the golden lock, twirling it round and round his fingers, bringing it to his nose, breathing in, breathing out. Already he is starting to calm down, already he is feeling better. He looks through his drawer, the only place he has control. A broken radio, buttons in a tin box, stolen things that go unnoticed. He looks in the trash, picks from the carpet, never taking valuables because the guests will know, and he will lose his job. Golden Sands is a good hotel; it has a strict policy. Little bars of soap, bundles of shower caps, sewing kits, plastic bags for sanitary pads, for storing things he doesn’t want to lose. He loves the buttons—red, green, brown, black, white, translucent, opaque. Small, medium, big, with four holes, two holes, he pulls them from clothes in the wardrobe, but sometimes they’re already on the carpet, so they’re automatically his.
The collection of hair is now like a thin layer of cloth—black, white, brown, grey, coarse, fine, and now a lock of long blonde. Perhaps he can weave them into a wig for the woman on the couch, now waiting on his bed. Afiq twirls the hairs around his fingers, wears them like rings, lays them across his forehead like a cold towel, coils them around his neck–like a noose?
He puts them in his mouth—spits—because they taste like soil. Soil and blood, and wet leaves from the rain last night, the girl’s shampoo faded, no longer fresh off the head. Afiq is in a state. His face is still stinging from the slap, so he sets the hair alight—fire, fire! Like he sets the neighbour’s cat on fire—meow meow, kucing gila, like he wants to set his mother’s bed on fire—Mama, just die already! There, he’s said it. Because he wants to know what singed hair smells like, and if a neighbour walks in, or his mother if she could, or the police, then they’ll think he’s the bomoh of Sungai Emas. And maybe he is, but now he thinks only about the body he left behind. But surely, she must have woken up. He worries about the girl, worries that his fingerprints will be all over her, worries if she will ever grow her hair back.
Afiq lies on his bed. But she is only young, surely she will grow it back.
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