When Philip told me he was bringing home, not batik or carved figures of orangutans, but a kuntilanak from his two-year Peace Corps stint in Indonesia, I swallowed everything — my concern, my unrequited love for him, my pride — and asked him what time I should be expecting them for dinner.
Philip’s my oldest friend — our mothers met in the hospital when they gave birth the same day. My Mom was fresh from the Philippines, scared out of her mind in a strange, chilly land with no friends or family to help her besides my Dad, who worked too many shifts at the paper plant to tend adequately to her anxiety. Philip’s Ma, meanwhile, was a freckled girl from the sticks who followed her high school sweetheart to the big city and was similarly cut loose from a familiar web of loved ones. They clung to each other in the hospital over their day-long labor. Philip’s Ma, just a few hours from birthing Philip first and wanting to take her mind off the increasing bouts of pain, asked Mom where she was from, if not from China and Japan, the only Asian countries she was familiar with.
“The Philippines,” she said.
“Philip-peens?” said Philip’s Ma slowly, tasting each syllable as if it was something unfamiliar in her mouth.
And that’s where Philip got his name, which I like to bring up to him any chance I get.
“Without me, you wouldn’t be Philip. You’d be Jim-Bob. Or Bubba. Hey, Bubba Potts,” I teased.
“At least it’s not unpronounceable, Martina Macadengdeng,” he retorted.
I would snort and shove him, and we’d commence some fighting, although Philip would hold back, residual effects of him always being told not to hit a girl, even a dusty tomboy who went by the much more androgynous Marty and liked to bite.
In reality, I liked that Philip’s Ma had gotten his name from my Mom — that way, in some fundamental way, Philip would always be tied to my family and by extension, to me. Already, our destinies had been aligned by our nearly simultaneous births. That his name came from the name of my family’s homeland, through the naive intervention of my Mom. Names are fate, I thought, and so I, in some way, was mixed into Philip’s primordial conscious stew from the very beginning.
In short, we were meant to be.
That is, until I got the call, via Viber, in a crowded café, that not only had Philip found an Indonesian girlfriend, but that she was a screaming ghost thirsty for vengeance and human organs he had tamed by hammering a nail into her skull.
“Her name is Siti!” shouted a wavering Philip through a weak Internet connection (on his end) trying to be heard over a crowd of pretentious undergrads pontificating on the merits of Thomas Aquinas v. Augustine and who would have been the better lay.
Clearly, the universe hates me.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I opened my buzzing door, but what Siti ended up being wasn’t it.
I had looked up the kuntilanak after Philip had told me the news, and what I saw wasn’t pleasant: your typical long-haired lady in white who died in childbirth with the bonus of blood splatters and a desire to destroy all men and pregnant women who came into her path.
Philip had always liked a challenge.
Siti, though, looked normal.
Pretty of course. I suppose it wouldn’t have been worth it for Philip if she hadn’t been. Shining mane of black hair, milky skin, limpid dark eyes, the works. I tugged wistfully at my own shorn locks with brown fingers roughened by hard scrubbing with antibacterial soap to remove grease and ink.
I politely put out my hand. “I’m Marty, Philip’s friend,” I said. “Nice to meet you. I made green curry. Food’s spicy in Indonesia, right?”
Siti nodded, and just there, I caught a glimpse of metal at the top of her head — the infamous nail? I could feel my stomach flip just a little bit. Just ew. I had just read about a foreman in the 1800’s who had gotten accidentally skewered in the skull by his own rod and had his personality change overnight, from a law-abiding citizen to a shifty sort.
The idea of any sort of thing poking into my brain and changing the essence of me into something else was — unsettling, to say the least.
But Siti took my hand and shook before placing her own hand over her heart. It was such a nice gesture that I tried to tamp down my resentment a little and smiled more genuinely.
Philip who had been standing next to her with his arm placed proprietarily over her shoulder beamed. “I knew the two best girls in my life would get along.”
I smiled wanly at him. “So, I’m guessing Indonesia was great?”
“This is enak,” said Siti over dinner. We were tightly packed around a card table that served as my dining table. I lived in a tiny studio which I had tried to brighten up with garage sale steals and tacked-up fabric, but it all couldn’t hide the fact that this was the housing of a cash-strapped graduate student.
“She means delicious,” said Philip.
“Yes, delicious,” repeated Siti. She was wearing white, although not of the tattered ghostly nightdress variety. Just a lacy little sundress that uncomfortably reminded me of a wedding dress or lingerie.
“Have you been learning English long?” I asked for lack of anything else. She had been a ghost. Do ghosts have families I could ask about? Jobs besides terrifying the living daylights out of people? Hobbies besides the same?
“Philip teach me,” she said, and automatically, her eyes flickered toward Philip, who was happily tucking in. Philip always enjoyed my cooking. My specialty was noodles: pasta, pho, pancit, you name it. Instead of serving my curry with rice, I had chosen to make it extra soupy with noodles added to it. Yum.
“Oh.” I slurped up a noodle and gulping it down, said, “How long have you two been together?”
Philip answered this time. “Four months.”
Four is death in China. The thought popped into my mind. The words sound the same in Mandarin, death and four. I wondered if it was a sign; a selfish, envious side of me wished it was a sign.
I hesitated. Would it be polite to ask?
Aw, hell. “How did you meet?”
Boom, and then came silence. It descended like headphones on someone’s ears. Bad idea, Marty, bad idea. I hurriedly stuffed noodles into my mouth, even though it was too late.
“In my desa.” It was Siti’s voice that broke through the awkward. Her voice, I suddenly noticed, was nice on the ears, soft but very clear with a lower pitch. I realized it reminded me of a clarinet, which I had played in middle school before giving it up in a fit of childish boredom.
“What’s a desa?”
“A village,” automatically supplied Philip, sounding suddenly relieved. He too had more determinedly crammed noodles into his mouth those incredibly long ten seconds. We shared that habit; part of our shared primordial stew, I suppose. “Not the one I was assigned to, but one close by. In Jawa Leste, remember I told you?”
I decided not to press further.
Part of me was determined to be the bigger person, to accept that Philip didn’t return my feelings and that Siti was here to stay; the other part of me, the uglier one, the one that lurked in a hard little seed deep in my torso, wanted Siti to run screaming (ha, get it?) back to wherever she came from in Indonesia. Maybe because I sort-of-did something. Maybe. There was that little gleam of nail I saw in her head that showed up in my dreams insistently. Not Siti, oddly enough. Not Siti in her old form, coming at me from the cobwebby corners of a haunted house or the dark shadows of the steamy, moldy Indonesian jungle. No. Just the nail.
I always woke up before anything happened. Never thought that I’d be dreaming of nails, but there you go.
But then one day, while I was lugging a basket of items I had cooked for a picnic — sandwiches with adobo-style chicken (Siti was Muslim so no pork), coleslaw, lavender-infused lemonade, and fruit salad — to the park, to the pink gingham blanket where Siti and Philip were spooning cheerfully, I realized I had accepted this new status quo with nary a whimper.
Call it weakness. I preferred to call it good old-fashioned love, of the platonic kind. Philip was my oldest friend after all. And clearly, he didn’t love me like that.
(Not that it made the sick feeling in my stomach, my dizziness, or the obsessiveness of my focus on him go away).
And Siti, I had to admit was pleasant enough. Not that we were talking much still, but we had one thing in common — Philip — and that was enough for us, I think, to accept each other’s new place in the little circles that made up our lives. We always have to make room for new people, like it or not. A little scooch here, a little scooch there. That’s the result of living in the new millennium with our endless global connectedness. If I could now go on the Internet and talk with people from Nigeria and Norway and become friends with them, why not become sort-of-friendly with a Javanese revenge spirit?
Philip untangled himself from Siti as soon as he saw me lugging my basket over and helped me bring it to the blanket. Siti silently helped me unpack it and arranged the paper plates, plastic cutlery, and cups they had brought.
Philip was looking extra handsome today, I had to admit. He hadn’t developed the telltale lobster color of the redhead under the sun yet and was spiffy in madras shorts in blue and a green t-shirt with his latest obscure band of the week’s name printed on it. One trait that I liked that he brought back from Indonesia was a newfound taste for color, he who had been all goth-punk-emo-indie in high school and college.
Siti meanwhile was pretty as always. She still favored white, I noticed. This time, she wore a white linen shirt over khaki pedal-pushers. I even noticed, to my slight disgust, that she had a daisy chain in her long dark hair, which, judging by the scatters of petals clinging to Philip, must have been his doing. Philip had so not been the type to make daisy chains.
He and Siti looked good together, I gave them that. Though I wondered if the daisy chain was strategic, to cover the nail.
“Looks delicious, Marty,” he said to me, almost licking his chops when he saw my spread. I don’t know how he hadn’t gained weight, the way he devoured my food.
I shrugged. “Eat up, soldier.”
“I was in the Peace Corps. Making love not war, y’know?”
“Ew, don’t talk about your sex life in front of me,” I said, and almost, almost was able to let the joke slide out of me without the usual pinch of pain in my chest. Almost.
I reached for a sandwich to smother it. Soon, we were eating companionably, before I noticed Siti staring, her sandwich dripping vinegar.
“Hey, Siti,” I said. She didn’t even blink.
I looked at the direction she was staring at. What would capture a former ghost’s fancy? A screaming ambulance? A graveyard? Instead, I beheld a tired-looking mother feeding a chubby-cheeked baby whose mouth was a cave about to shriek. The mother had the new-mother harried look: frizzy hair, rumpled slightly mismatched clothes, and dark circles under her eyes.The tot, though, I had to say was radiantly, cheek-gnawingly adorable. I guessed it was a boy, since it was in little blue overalls with truck appliqués, but who knows nowadays?
I glanced back at Siti and saw her unconsciously stroke her perfectly flat stomach.
Oh. I remembered a few notes from my research, that all kuntilanaks were women who died during pregnancy or childbirth.
Siti had been pregnant before — Philip. Presumably there had been someone to impregnate her and someone who had impregnated her mother. Maybe she had even had another little grown-up fertilized ovum pop out of her before this one killed her.
In short, Siti had had a life before Philip which I hadn’t known about. Uneasily, I wondered if Philip had known about it as well. If he even cared, which I quickly shook away as a disloyal thought.
“What’s the matter, babe?” said Philip, stroking Siti’s hair, and startled, Siti dropped her sandwich on her perfectly creased shorts, staining it soy-sauce brown.
“Yikes, sorry,” he said, grabbing some napkins and patting ineffectually at the stain, succeeding only in spreading it.
“You’ll need club soda for that,” I said, thinking suddenly of my own mother and Philip’s Ma, swapping household tips on their tiny budgets, before my Dad was promoted at work, and we could move into different suburb, one with houses with two stories and no chain-link fences, bigger yards. No place for Philip’s Ma, who quickly became Philip’s Only Parent, when his Dad turned out to be your typical love ‘em and leave ‘em. My Mom graduated to fancy cleaning products; Philip’s Ma was the one who taught me the club soda trick. I wondered why Philip hadn’t seemed to learn that.
I don’t remember the first time I looked at Philip and was hit with love-of-the-romantic-variety, but I remember all too well when I realized that he would never be safely just mine.
Of course we were teens, although this wasn’t post-puberty when boom! Philip became suddenly reasonably attractive. It was before, when he was still McGlasses or Ronald McDonald, depending on what I felt like.
Philip and I were in that very same park as a matter of fact. This was in the emo phase of his high school years, so while he had graduated to non-black colors, he still stuck to dark, muted neutrals.
We were sitting on a bench doing our best Gen X impression, cool, ironical, detached. Philip’s headphones were firmly clamped over his ears. I was reading a newsmagazine but not very well.
“Hey, look, Marty,” he said abruptly.
I looked up, and lo and behold, there were a gaggle of people in brightly colored, crazily patterned shirts around what I thought to be instruments, bronze pots and what looked like xylophones of varying heights.
“What is that?” I asked but before Philip could reply, there was music.
It tinkled; I didn’t know how to describe it then. It sounded like a clock, so steady was its hypnotizing rhythm, or the pulsing beat of a living heart. It was about as far from the Green Day and My Chemical Romance and so on to ever increasing levels of dark, screaming non-mainstreaminess as we could get.
But I couldn’t say that in front of Philip. “What is this? Preschool? Are those xylophones?”
But he wasn’t there. I squinted around there, a thrumming building up in my stomach. Where was he?
My eyes sped up to the colorful cohort, and amongst the jades and violets and scarlets, I saw a dark spot, akin to a smudge of mud on a rainbow.
Philip. Unheeding of my dislike for drawing attention to myself, I sprinted towards him.
When I got there, the thrumming turned into a pounding that had migrated to my chest. There was Philip. Talking to a girl. A beautiful girl. Someone who was even darker than me, dark as a wood carving, mahogany and ebony squeezed in a bold, brilliant gold and scarlet blouse and skirt.
I tapped his shoulder. “Philip,” I said, breathing so hard it came out like a sob.
He turned, and I saw his face was beaming. “Marty!” he said, his sparkling eyes magnified by his glasses. “This is Anggun, from Indonesia. They’re all from Indonesia. This crazy set of instruments is called a gamelan. Isn’t that cool?”
I didn’t remember when I fell in love with Philip because I had always been falling in love with Philip. When I looked back upon our lifelong friendship, there was the sense that we were bonded, a molecule of M1P1. MartyPhilip. Two poles irrevocably attracted to one another. Something so magnetic, so chemical, that there would be nothing to separate us. Ever. Who else knew that while I didn’t mind being tickled in general, I hated having my feet touched? Or that the scar under my chin came from the time I tried to jump-tackle him from the stairs, and I hit the bottom step instead?
Then it happened all at once that our bond (from my pole) was more-than-friendship, and that it was a realization that was akin to light after darkness. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. . .Once that happened, I knew.
But now, I had to wonder if the seeds for Siti’s cleaving were there from the very beginning. That, once I realized that not only was it entirely possible that Philip would break away from me but also that it was entirely probable, Philip would then be attracted to someone else, form his own dual compound with no space for me, a lonely little atom floating in space.
I had yet to have a real conversation with Siti until Philip called me one day.
“Hey, Marty,” he said.
“I have a job interview today, but Siti’s really sick. Can you check in on her today?”
I paused and thought for a second. True, it was a day I didn’t teach or have classes (success! a three day weekend!), but did I really want to talk to Siti, the interloper, the legitimate girlfriend?
I was surprised when I realized that I did.
“Yes, of course.”
Sick people, my mother always said, need some sort of sustenance. I busied myself quickly with a simple chicken soup. Luckily, I had some stock leftover from dinner yesterday and with some chicken, noodles, and vegetables got a delicious one together.
I packed it all in a plastic container and went on my way. Philip lived close to me, not a short enough distance to walk to, but a quick drive or slightly longer bicycle ride. Since I had the soup, car it was.
He lived in a slightly bigger apartment than mine; he had lucked out, that bastard, although all that meant was that he had a bedroom and didn’t have to sleep on a futon. I supposed it was mostly for Siti’s benefit, though.
When I got there, I had to admit, I was impressed with the decorating scheme. Lots of brightly colored batik and some beautiful wood carvings. I supposed Philip bought the bulk of it, but I suspected Siti had a hand in actually putting it all together. Philip didn’t really have the woman’s touch, as they say.
I knocked gently on the bedroom door. “It’s me, Marty.”
“Saya di sini.
I took that as an invitation to come in. I saw the double bed and hurriedly shoved away thoughts of what Philip and Siti did in that bed. Huddled under covers (a quilt, Philip’s Ma’s, I remembered) was a pale, shivering Siti. Despite how tangled her hair was, I still caught a glimpse of the nail in her head.
“I brought food,” I said, holding up the Tupperware.
Siti coughed weakly. “Apa itu?”
I had no idea what she was asking, but I guessed it was a basic question, probably, “What’s in there? Surely not poison from a jealous girl friend?”
“Chicken soup,” I answered.
I saw Siti’s brow furrow. Despite her illness and the lack of blood in her face, she was still dazzlingly beautiful, like actresses are in the movies even while cancer-ridden. “Ah, sop ayam.” She broke out in a smile.
Instinctively, I smiled back, and what do you know, Siti visibly stopped shaking so much. I quickly busied myself in the kitchen and prepared a tray. As I was arranging it, through the door, I heard her thin, wavering voice. “I have mie goreng. Please makan.”
There was a pause then, “Noodle.”
I scanned the kitchen and soon saw a large woven bowl upside down on the counter. Removing it, I found a bowl of stir-fried noodles with chicken and vegetables. It looked delicious so I helped myself and after a few minutes zapping it in the microwave, brought the fully laden tray to the bedroom.
Siti was now sitting up and while not exactly looking better, at least looked capable of swallowing her food. We quickly commenced eating.
“This is delicious!” I exclaimed, a few bites into the noodles.
“My ibu teach me,” said Siti quietly, sipping her soup.
I nearly choked on my noodles. “Your mother?”
“He was — she was famous cook in our desa,” she said. “She teach me she’s recipes.”
I chewed slowly on the noodles I had not choked on. “What-what was your family like?”
Siti’s eyes closed. “Large. I have many brother, many sister. I paling tua. The first.” She bit her lip.
“Were you married?” I asked, the question tumbling out of my mouth before I could stop myself.
I saw shifting movement under the covers, around her abdomen. “No,” she whispered.
There was a silence before, “I want,” then a little choke.
I didn’t know what to do, but I found myself doing something my Mom did for me when I was sick and little. I went up to Siti and took her spoon from her and fed her.
The first spoonful dripped from her in the surprise and splattered her white t-shirt, but I kept on. Siti quickly caught on and accepted the noodles, not passively, but actively. She slurped gustily and chewed noisily on the bright orange carrots, the celery, and sucked up the noodles.
I realized then how small Siti really was. Shorter than me, even, and I was as far from an Amazon as you can be. Here was another tiny, frail thing far away from home.
Gently, I stroked the top of her head and only noted the cool shininess of the nail before trying to focus on restoring warmth to her scalp, feeling the soft beat of her pulse under my palm.
A few days later, Philip had accepted a job offer (non-profit, naturally), and as Siti didn’t drink, we took his celebration, just the two of us, to our favorite watering hole, The Turtledove.
We ordered our usuals: a beer for Philip and a gin and tonic for myself. We settled at a small table in the corner.
“We haven’t done this in a while,” said Philip.
“No, we haven’t,” I agreed.
Philip ran a hand over his head, through what little hair he allowed himself. I missed the corona of curls he had had as a child sometimes; he had looked like Ronald McDonald; but his hair had also reminded me of a saint’s halo. St. Philip, idol too long of my heart. “Marty,” he asked. “What did you do when I was gone?”
“Well, I Skyped you if your Internet was working,” I replied, sipping slowly, thinking of the hours I spent dawdling on the Internet, surreptitiously checking Skype if he was on, how my heart bounced in my chest and soared when he, infrequently, was.
“Yeah, not related to me,” he asked, frowning into his beer.
I whacked him gently on the arm. “Haha, your ego is showing. Um, graduate school. Gotta try to make the most of my upcoming decade away from the real world, y’know?”
“Besides reading boring dead theorists.”
“Hey, some of these people are still alive!”
“You didn’t dispute the boring.”
“Only to you, law school dropout.”
“Who are you calling a dropout, not-a-doctor-lawyer-engineer?”
“Once I get this Ph.D., I will technically be a doctor. Technically.”
“But seriously,” said Philip, his forehead furrowing, like a pale, freckly field right before planting. “What do you do?”
I racked my head and was about to come up short, until one little thing rolled into my head. “I cooked.”
“Why are you ah-ing?”
Philip didn’t answer. He gulped down another mouthful of beer and then asked, “What do you really think of Siti? Siti and me?”
“Loaded question,” I tried to say lightly. “Loaded like a gun. Hell of a question to ask.”
“You’re my closest friend.”
Which was the problem. “I. . .don’t know. She seems nice. Makes good fried noodles. You’re cute together, cuddling in the grass and daisies,” I said, thinking of the park.
His forehead furrowed further. “But it’s been a few months. Don’t you have more to say?”
Philip, I lo — But the thought was unfinishable. I smiled. “She’s shy! And we don’t really share a language! Not yet.” I slurped on my drink and added, in a burst of inspiration, “Why are you asking? Is something wrong?”
He contemplatively sipped his beer. PBR. Cheap shit. Good old Philip and his horrendous taste in alcohol products. “Siti’s a little homesick, I think. I wish I knew what she did all day because she’s so — excited — when I come back. Her eyes shine, like new coins or something.” He frowned. “Sometimes I wonder if I was right to bring her here.”
A thought came, and before I could stop, I said, “I still don’t even really know how you met!”
“Long story,” Philip said abruptly. He rubbed his head.
“We have time.”
“Not really,” Philip said, taking my hand. My cheeks warmed as he gently traced circles on my palm. “You really need to moisturize,” he said.
I stared at my hands, smudged with ink from grading and note-taking, a shiny burn on my wrist from a hot pan, my thumb wrapped in a dingy Band-Aid for a long-healed paper cut.
“Thanks for reminding me,” I replied coolly.
Siti was examining a raspberry. I could see her wondering fingers tracing the delicate contours of the berry.
“Raspberry,” I replied. I surveyed the spread on the tiny table: flour, shortening, salt, cornstarch, sugar, water, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries. At the farmers’ market, on a whim, I had decided to buy berries from a local farmer in bulk. How sweet they smelled, how rich their colors, a tapestry of reds and blues. Pops of brightness on my morning cereal and in my spinach and kohlrabi salads and on top of vanilla ice cream cold enough to make my gums ache.
But as always, I miscalculated how much a single girl needed and was faced with rapidly over-ripening berries, at that voluptuous state when one more day means utter ruin.
I called Siti and asked if I could come over.
“Have you ever made a pie?” I asked her. She shook her head wordlessly.
“I’ll teach you,” I said and did. She caught on quickly, Siti. Together, we cut the shortening into the flour and salt, dripped water, and rolled out the crust. We cut the rest into strips. We chopped the strawberries and added them to raspberries and blueberries boiling with sugar and cornstarch. It thickened and bubbled like a witch’s brew, a particularly happy and sweet one.
The oven already hot, we slid the pie into its warm, orange-lit depths and waited for a heavy, honeyed scent to emerge. Sure, recipes always specify a time frame, but I’ve always found my mother’s way of calculating done-ness most right — smell. Your nose picking up ingredients finally coalescing into something right.
“Enak?” I asked, when we were sitting and eating two slices. The tangy-sweetness of berries on my lips and tongue: piquant raspberries, sharp strawberries, earthy blueberries. It was almost as good as being kissed. Kissing someone back.
She nodded and smiled shyly, seemingly pleased by my clumsy attempt to speak Bahasa Indonesia. I had downloaded an app on my phone and if I had a spare minute, flipped through a few flashcards. Nothing major, but now that we were making pies together, I should try harder. For Philip’s sake, of course.
“Philip like?” said Siti, almost as if she were reading my mind.
“Yes. Can’t get enough of my pies. Or my cooking in general.”
Siti smiled. “He like my cooking, also.”
I thought of the fried noodles, their ineffable simplicity and deliciousness. “I bet,” I replied.
“My mother, she have warung,” Siti said suddenly, and before I could ask what a warung was, she continued, “Mie goreng, nasi goreng, ayam, sop — all delicious. I help she cook.”
A warung must be a restaurant then. “Your noodles were your mother’s recipe? Can you make me more of those noodles?” I asked, remembering their oiliness, the hint of chili pepper. The touch of crispy fried onion on top. Delicious.
She nodded. “Long time in family. My daughter’s favorite.”
Silence dropped at the mention of “daughter.” The child. Siti’s child. Was this the child who had died?
But Siti’s words came pouring out, almost as if she didn’t hear. “But then, they came and I hamil and no more, no more.”
They? “Who’s they, Siti?” I asked.
“Bad,” she whispered. “They hurt me. Many blood. I alone. Then —”
In that pause, I imagined Siti somewhere, sometime else, but as a regular woman who happened to be prettier than average maybe, but then, she was alone in a dark place, scared and bleeding ropes of crimson. Dying. Then—
“Do you remember—?” But before I could fully ask the question I was too afraid to hear the answer for, she violently shook her head.
“I evil,” she said. “Bad, badder than they. I kill because I angry, so so angry. But then Philip come and save me. I human again. I woman.” She had stopped eating her pie. It sat golden and delicious on a plate, the crust beautifully if irregularly shaped. Little bumps here and there of dough not fully flattened. The inside was all jewel tones, purples and blues and reds. I realized then they were also the color of bruises, wounds, and that Siti was hugging herself. I wanted to hug her; but I wasn't sure if this was the time and place for it, because Siti’s long black hair was covering her face; and I was suddenly reminded of pictures I found of kuntilanak on the Internet and how silly and amateurish they looked, just normal black-haired woman in white sacks and ketchup; but this, Siti, was the real thing; and she was suddenly forbidding and terrifying in her pent-up grief and rage.
I backed away and ineffectually ate my pie, snowing crumbs all over the table and floor like a limp-limbed infant.
A dream: A jungle, flat and quiet, pregnant with creepycrawlingbuzzinghissinghooting life. Green and brown, dappled in light and shadow. My feet were sinking into the squishy mud and there! under a tree! A bundle of hair and white cloth and redred blood.
But she was no longer still. Inexorably, I drew closer, and I saw the cloth was pulsating, like ants were crawling all over and under the skin.
The back burst, and there was a child that was not a child crawling out of the back of this creature. I screamed.
My cellphone rang in the middle of the night. The ringtone was loud and angry; I chose barking dogs because I liked dogs and thought the sound would be more pleasant; but it was not, it was hateful and aggressive.
I grabbed my phone off the side table and swiped. “Hello?”
The answer was silence. I checked the ID, and it said Philip. But why the silence? Was this an accidental call?
I became alert. The word was faintly familiar, and it was Siti’s voice. “Siti?”
I started mentally preparing lists: phone numbers, medicines, bandages, compresses, recipes. “Siti, what’s wrong? Is it Philip? Is it you? What?” The words tumbled out, I heedless of the quickness of my speaking.
The softest of a sigh came into my ears. “Tolong. Come.”
I frowned, halting my internal list-making. “Why?”
A slight gasp, and I tightened my grip on my phone. “Please.”
I breathed through my nose noisily. “Siti?”
The beep was unnaturally loud. I was left with my phone in hand, staring into space. Siti had never called me before — never.
A headache was coming on, but already, I was heading to my closet, blindly throwing on clothes, a sweater. I was out the door before I could stop myself to think.
Philip opened the door; I hadn’t even knocked properly. I was not sure what to expect but didn’t hear screaming so I took that as a good sign. His glasses were smudged; he hadn’t cleaned them in a while. “Marty, thank God. Over here.” He grabbed me by the arm, and we were in the living room. A single lamp gleamed, catching flashes of colors here and there, particularly a red and gold cloth framed over the sofa. Now though, ever so faintly, I could hear soft slippery sounds. “I was going to call you. How did you know to come?” His eyes were eager, hungry. The last question was discomfiting.
I ignored it. “Where is she?” I removed my coat and wiped my bangs out of my eyes; my hair was getting shaggy and needed a trim, I thought absently.
“In the bedroom,” said Philip. There was a faint glimmer of sweat on his lightly freckled forehead. He was still holding my arm, and he firmly led me there, but I could feel him shaking. Once we got to the slightly ajar door, he more or less shoved me through.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
The room was so dark that it was like I’d entered a black and white film. The windows were heavily shrouded, and the shadows played over the walls and furniture. The slippery, weeping sounds were louder though. I let my eyes adjust.
And there she was, bundled up in a corner under the window, hiding in the shadows.
I approached softly, a fog cat tip-toeing closer. “Siti,” I said softly, coaxingly.
The weeping didn’t stop nor did it intensify. It merely continued, unabated, as if nothing outside had disturbed it.
“It’s me, Marty. Siti, aku di sini.”
At the sound of my Indonesian, the crying stopped for a moment, and Siti’s head turned. I saw her pale face, but there was something on her forehead. I stepped closer.
“Siti,” I said softly, using her name as an anchor. “Siti, what’s wrong?”
“Take out,” she said softly.
“What?” As I took another step, Siti suddenly grabbed the edge of the curtain and pulled just enough, so that a hint of moonlight fell on her face.
Blood. Not a lot, but the trickle was startling on her pale face. I remembered my dream, and I stumbled back, nearly tripping.
“Take out,” she repeated. Her dark eyes were shining hotly in her head; they’re volcanic in origin, obsidian.
“What out?” I whispered, trembling just a bit, although I already knew. Already knew.
Then, she was standing, and her head was thrust up into my face. “ This,” she hissed.
The nail, glistening steel, was slightly bloody now. Clumps of hair had been ripped out around it; fresh scratches oozed blood. But, it looked as firmly entrenched as ever.
“Take out,” she said insistently.
“But,” I said weakly. I remember our earlier conversation, about how Philip saved her, how she was now a woman. A human. Not a ghost, a murderous, bleeding ghost, something more horrible and otherworldly than this crying, bleeding girl in a white nightgown.
“I cannot,” she said, crying. “I cannot.”
“Cannot what?” I said, panic rising within me. My breath quickened.
“This. . .not my home. I cannot live here,” she said.
“But,” I said, casting away for ideas, for words, words that could anchor this woman, not a ghost, to the living world. “What would you return to?”
“I not know. No. But not here.”
I took a deep breath. “Can’t you just leave?”
Siti shuddered and suddenly grabbed my hand. “No. No. No. Cannot.” She put my hand on her head.
I flinched. The top of her head was hot, hot, and there was moisture from the blood.
“Feel,” she said firmly and guided my fingers. Underneath them was the nail, strangely hot and pulsing. She pressed, and I could feel the nail’s rounded top burrow into my skin. It felt living, breathing.
“Take out,” she whispered. “Tolong.”
That word again. I had looked it up before entering the apartment. Please. Help. “What will you turn back into, though?” I asked, envisioning the ghost. Envisioning her rising from the ground, the blood gushing from her head, the hole from her torso where her child was torn from her body, a two-headed crimson fountain. Her hair floating around her head.
I could not imagine her face, and yet I was not afraid.
She did not answer, merely pressing my hand harder against the nail in her head.
I began to massage, my hands, used to kneading dough, trying to coax out the nail. The flesh in her head undulated reluctantly, but I could feel her tense body relaxing, her body laying down its fear, its anxiety, perhaps her humanity, the corporeality that kept her anchored among human beings. To Philip.
“Marty.” I heard the voice at the door, Philip’s voice, uncertain, hopeful, confused. I ignored it.
Siti was moaning slightly, but I didn’t alter the speed or strength of my hand. I remember my mother feeding me when I was sick, the way she stroked my back like I was a baby bird.
It was imperceptible at first, but I felt the nail began to move out beneath my hand.
I tried to keep my excitement low, to keep the movement of my hand smooth and steady. Slowly, the nail rose from her head, centimeter by centimeter. Its thin metallic body emerged, bathed in a fine sheen of blood, but none gushed from her head.
I could hear Philip tentatively knocking at the door, then more frantically. I vaguely remember that I hadn’t locked the door, so why didn’t he come in, but then the nail popped out into my hand.
“Marty,” Philip cried out again; but the nail was shining hot and bloody in my hands; and Siti’s face was turned up, smiling at me, bright and alive and human; and I didn’t, couldn’t hear him.