What the highway prefers is young meat. Smooth skin. Limpid, hopeful eyes. Caramel-sweet thighs that the years have yet to tattoo with varicose veins or regrets. She knows this because the Long Road once called to her too, when her back wasn’t stooped with a thousand domestic tragedies.
Makcik Fatimah. Aunt Fatimah. For all of its respectfulness, she has always found the term strangely dehumanizing. Fatimah blames it on how the word strips away all vestiges of the wild-haired girl she used to be, replacing it with a careful gravitas that feels as alien as the expanding circumference of her middle. Being called makcik meant that you were expected to only want specific things, to behave a certain way, to be invisible until you were wheeled out for some lavish ceremony or other.
She loathes it.
Resentment simmers as Fatimah lumbers up the slope, knees snarling at the exercise. It’s true that people are more courteous to her these days but it’s a mechanical kindness, doled out without any actual thought. No one actually cares, she thinks viciously. Her thoughts grind together, daggered cartilage against bone, wearing her thinner and thinner until only hard edges remain.
Fatimah pauses. Huffs. Her lungs are bleached of breath and stinging from exertion. The journey is getting harder with every year. She unravels her headscarf with an unself-conscious shrug, coils the vivid red fabric around a wrinkled hand. There is no one here who would judge her naked hair or the dust-grey streaks slithering through the damp curls, after all. Under her slippered feet, the highway stirs uncertainly, an old shark, blind and vast and patient.
A hazy warmth explores her toes like a lover’s hands before it travels down to her heels, stroking and questioning. Unbidden, a prayer jumps to her mouth. The highway feels rancid. Wrong. Its touch is road rash and open marrow, calf bones mixing with shreds of leather, the wailing of an ambulance. She tenses. But the heat slithers onwards. Even if it remembers her, the highway no longer desires Fatimah.
She shudders delicately. Still juggling a prayer, Fatimah begins the long trek up the road again, the heel of her left hand jammed into a hip. Everything seems to hurt these days. There are a hundred other places Fatimah would rather be right now. Asleep at home, nestled into her husband’s arms, his snores as comforting as mother’s heartbeat. In a tornado of sun-drenched grandchildren, babbling about grasshoppers and rising bread. Under the blistering sun of Mecca where skin and sins are burned alike.
She crests the hill.
Here, the highway is decorated with makeshift shrines, a chain of muddy lights beading the asphalt. The smell of incense hangs in the air like a painful memory, underscored by rot and roast meat, by the rising stench of frangipani. Fatimah trundles past the parade of roadside memorials, mentally cataloguing which are in need of repairs and which are not, which will require a second visit when daylight finally returns to the skies. She nods approvingly at those that evidence human attention. A garland of fresh chrysanthemums wins a grin, an ant-speckled feast a shaky chuckle.
Out of the corners of her eyes, she can see the darkness fritzing, like someone adjusting the tuning dial on the television box of reality. Twitching, staticky silhouettes leave finger-paint trails of white in her vision as they zigzag across the road, testing invisible boundaries, moths in a box. Some travel with her, keeping pace from a distance, while others cling to their altars, stooped outlines pulsing like a runner’s heartbeat.
Her name tumbles disjointedly through the night, every syllable spoken with a different inflection, every repetition haunted by a hundred muffled voices. Over and over and over, as translucent hands grasp hers in salaam.
“May the mercy of God be upon you,” Fatimah mumbles dully in return, a courtesy and a talisman and a benediction, all intended to ward against the skin-crawling terror that wrenches at her measured scowl whenever a pale, sad face peels itself from the night to regard her.
Sometimes, she thinks about passing the burden onto someone younger, a niece or a daughter, a younger mother, one who can undertake this annual pilgrimage without needing to soak in a hot bath for hours afterwards. She’s old now. She has done her duty. She has earned the right to be ornamental. She can stop pretending she needs to be useful, and just be. The thoughts swarm like flies as Fatimah trudges towards a black space between two broken street-lights, where the concrete is pierced with ugly striations and tiny, green shoots.
Fatimah unsheathes the machete holstered over her shoulder, a practised swing that would have done Hollywood proud. She does not pause. The portly matron sucks a breath in, holds it tight, begins hacking at the dense jungle vegetation with hard, rough strokes that make her wrists squeal with pain. She tears at clinging vines with her hands, fingertips quickly becoming pockmarked by thorns. The rhythmic work is strangely reassuring. Chop. Rip. Forward step. Chop. Rip. Forward step. Eventually, circled by the sad echoes of the living, Fatimah clears a route to a pile of chipped stones, a monochromatic photograph enthroned at its heart.
She squats gracelessly, her machete tossed aside, forgotten as Fatimah plows through her backpack. Hands find intricate paper mache creations: a doll house, an orange Kia, a basket of fruits, the disconcertingly realistic likeness of a stooped little woman, her hair cinched in a prim bun. She pulls out joss sticks and sticky, colourful kuih. Sheaves of hell money, inscribed with runes she still does not recognize in spite of having done this same ritual every year for the last fifty years.
“There is no god but God,” Fatimah mumbles earnestly, hoping that her casual blasphemy will be forgiven.
The offerings are stacked carefully. House first, with the car in the porch and the paper servant perched on a balcony. Then, the joss sticks and the arrangement of sweet food. Finally, Fatimah sets the effigies ablaze before she kneels in the mud, hands steepled. Her eyes close. There is no god but God, she tells her deity again. This is simply a responsibility, not infidelity.
She begins to chant: ugly words, like splinters and broken teeth jabbing into her tongue, the syllables contorting her throat.
“Makcik Fatimah.” A woman’s voice, delicate as a spider’s web, breaks through the chain of runes.
The cloying, familiar smell of frangipani is almost a physical weight. Fatimah raises her gaze to see a lissome girl, no older than seventeen, peek from around the trunk of an oil palm tree. Her smile is shy, her lips full and vulnerable. She has dark, straight hair that reaches the back of her knees and wide eyes like that of a trusting doe’s.
“You’re early, Intan,” Fatimah croaks. “Are the others prepared as well?”
Intan cocks her head. “Some.”
She doesn’t blink enough, a little voice inside of Fatimah’s head observes. Only once every other minute, if that. A slow, deliberate shuttering that immediately comes off as unnatural. Fatimah briefly contemplates telling Intan about its existence but the idea is subdued in a moment. You’re getting soft, she tells herself. Don’t forget who you’re trying to protect.
The whine of an approaching motorcycle interrupts her reverie.
“Makcik Fatimah?” Intan pants, a keening eagerness welling from every syllable.
“Not yet,” Fatimah snaps. “You remember our pact.”
“Signed in blood.” Intan is no longer looking at Fatimah. Her eyes are hunting something that the old woman can’t see. Look at her, clucks that same disapproving voice in the hollow of her thoughts. She isn’t pretending to breathe anymore.
“You remember the boundaries.”
“We can have them outside of the highway.”
“Not a drop of blood on the road.”
“Not one. We remember, Makcik Fatimah.” Her voice is clotted with desire, thick and wet and animal. “May I go now?”
God help me, Fatimah thinks. “Yes.”
Intan smiles again, wider this time. Fatimah catches a glimpse of too many teeth, calcified frills like a halo of fish spines. The old Malay woman is suddenly overwhelmed by an animal panic. It hits like the heart attack she had earlier this year, alone in a house filled with family photos and ghosts. Fatimah wrestles it down, chokes it into silence with cold hard reason and the certainty of repetition. This is the only way, she tells herself again and again.
Fatimah doesn’t watch Intan depart. But she notices when the air lifts, and the smell of foliage and rot once again begins to seep into her lungs. With some difficulty, she rises, dragging her bag of paper idols and offerings. There are more shrines to clean, more spirits to feed, more to do before the arrival of the morning.
It is not an ideal solution, she thinks to herself as she clumps to the next grave. People will still die. But at least, they will die outside of the highway, away from the sleeping appetite that crawls beneath the concrete. If it can hunger, she reasons, it can be starved.
Story copyright © 2015 by Cassandra Khaw
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Stacy Nguyen
By day, Cassandra Khaw is the business cat for Ysbryd Games. By night, she works on the companion novel for Codemancer. Her fiction can be found at Terraform and (soon!) Mythic Delirium and Tiny Owl Workshop!
Stacy Nguyen (artwork) is a graphic/web designer, illustrator, and writer working in Seattle. She is a former news editor and the current editorial consultant for Northwest Asian Weekly, the oldest Pan-Asian weekly still in print on the West Coast. Her illustrations have won awards from the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Stacy earned her Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Washington.