It’s cold in London but you glow with warmth. You travel limbless and limned from your core, throat crossed with black silk just as it was in your first days. Yes, you were naked then, washed clean in monsoons, dried by storm winds. When was the last time your sly hunt was wreathed in rice flowers? Do you recall how dtaan-tree fronds stroked your secret self as you rose, star-bound?
Now your London home shivers you into clothes. A length of black at your neck doesn’t suffice. You add to old habits—night journeys sensibly hatted, the frank, coiled shapes below your neck wrapped in silk layered with batting and wool, each piece handmade by the wearer herself. No other clothier would believe your particular sensitivities. Only krasue know krasue.
(You make a fine new flying outfit each season. You like having things, you’re the lord and lady of things.)
London’s cross-hatched with forgotten waterways, the Krungthep of the Occident, murky and decadent. The Heath hides the Fleet in its hills, earth over arteries water-fat; it surfaces as a rivulet, gleams and whispers and winks knuckle-high in leaf-lined silt before it talks away, louder and deeper into the festering heart of the city, but you drink it here, the source.
The tumulus field brings food best savoured like an egg with bael-sap yolk—slowly, thoughtfully, the red of it so rich on your tongue after eating bland pale without. In the viaduct pond you dump his fixie and clean your face.
After the meal you play with foxes. Your city friends have great thumping tails, on hind legs they yelp delightedly.
(When you first heard sharp cries in the hills you thought it was another krasue. Foxes came instead, sniffed you wonderingly, ears flicking. You didn’t find each other appetizing in the least. Their company is brief, precious: city foxes live a year each.)
You peer into the Hollow Oak. When you were new here you asked your first fox friend, lovely old Chalk Scrag, if this was her den.
No, friend, no—my burrow smells like forest all dark and close, she says. This smells like witch. One day I will show you the best smells of my home, yes, yes, but not that witch tree, no. That is hers to show.
You wonder if she’s shy. You think about whether she’s a person who also knows what it’s like to be apart from others. Under the bark and earth there’s always the smell of black tea and sugared fruit, sometimes cake, sometimes curry.
That one’s never come out, says Liquorice Grin, who counts Chalk Scrag as eightieth great-grandparent. She is busy. Leaves us gifts, but never comes out to play with us like you do, friend.
Four score years you’ve hunted here and no corner of the Heath is unexplored but this.
Before setting off home, you linger by the Oak as you always do.
She is shy, she is busy, but you can ask.
So for a change, tonight you say, “Your home smells wonderful,” into the hollow. Your eerie heart beats strong as you fly home.
Strong teeth and supple tongue open the night-hatch to your flat. You shed your flying clothes and look at yourself on the bed. In your own light you consider the soft limbs, the clean red hollow between your shoulders. What are you truly hungry for?
You enfold your secret self with a body that accepts you neatly and completely.
The black silk remains at your throat.
It is good to lay your head on the pillow.
In the morning your longer self stretches her limbs, washes, thinks about being she as she pulls on a turquoise jumper, so good on skin the colour of tamarind flesh, a long skirt in pig’s blood, Malvolio tights, black boots laced up. Before a mirror she wanders her hands over the pleasing stubble on the back and sides of her head, dressing the length on top into a sleek pompadour.
(Your grandmothers’ hairstyle is now subculture fashionable but you wear it anyway, you’re the age of two grandmothers together and want to remember what you had.)
The morning walk to the cafe brings smells from the flats: running water and clean skin, burnt toast, bacon fat sizzling, hot dusty radiators. There’s strange comfort in witnessing others’ routines.
Coffee is taken quickly before the man with a rough-haired jack comes for his own—tame dogs never like you, the cafe’s too small for a scene.
For two decades you’ve been teaching. You like interaction structured around things you know and love, boundaries defined. Every five years you make yourself move. You enjoy this while you can.
Knitting today. To make the cowl you’ve planned, students discard needles and knit like this: thick yarn knotted onto wrists, loops drawn over fists, wool on skin, weaving on flesh. Your students’ concentration is your delight. It staves the hunger somewhat.
Once you tended silkworms and cotton bolls, had a great loom under the belly of your stilt house. Your family once wore the fabric you grew, spun, wove.
Now it’s only you, the narrowness of your single self.
(But the cowls will warm your students, so this will do.)
That evening returns you to your alma mater. Female Abjection and the Monstrous Feminine in Thai Cinema, the email said. Open to all. It’s sure to be diverting.
You’ve not yet been to the Bloomsbury buildings—when you studied languages, it was the School of Oriental Studies at 2 Finsbury Circus and you were a man hatted and trousered, as it sometimes suits your fancy. The institution’s re-invented itself: cosmopolitan, international, politically active, inclusive. (Coy about its hand in training Empire: to control a people you know their tongues, their hearts.)
You sit and are lectured on a self Othered through others’ eyes. Except for one Thai man, the lecturer cites theorists and academics like her, white and Western.
She says, “There are no feminists in Thailand—Thai women don’t really identify as feminists. It’s just not done. People talk about Southeast Asian women having power and ownership, but…” she shrugs.
(It’s never occurred to the lecturer to ask what a Thai woman thinks of herself, let alone a krasue’s view of her own condition.)
You think of spitting in her tea. Wouldn’t make much difference to the taste—your lips are primed. But her words will survive a thousand years: she’s adding to the sum of human knowledge. She doesn’t need your curse—no, it wouldn’t make much difference at all.
There is loyalty, still, though you’ve been here so long and it’s your countrywomen who fear you most, who have always kept their distance from you, who would reject and destroy and silence you instantly if they knew your tastes.
But you were made by them. You are their monster. It’s hard to believe others would believe you. The hunger you’ve mastered, mostly, but grieving anger and loneliness thunder through your whole interior.
You suck your teeth and go home, fill yourself with sweet warm rice. A collection on your kitchen shelves: rice scraped white, rice left red or brown or black, rice so delicious wives forget husbands.
(Is it good or bad you’ve only found husband-forgetting rice? Perhaps men are more easily forgotten by wives. You’ve no inclination for husbands: the sum of your knowledge on this subject is that they’re common.)
Once your fork and spoon are closed, an invitation appears, curling hand tracing bright in the air:
You are invited to
A Midnight Cake Tasting
for the delight of the Witch Ambrosia
at the Hollow Oak, Hampstead Heath
You hesitate, chewing your lip. Perhaps she’s only inviting you out of kindness, politeness, obligation. Perhaps she won’t be there. Perhaps this is a trick. But she’s asked, and you accept.
You go as yourself, your honest, smallest self. When the clock strikes the hour you hover, unsure.
“Come in, love, I’ve been waiting so long,” says Ambrosia.
The witch leads you in, steps winding like shell chambers into the earth. Her home smells like a home should, is full of things neatly kept, herbs bunched, cables sorted. In the lamplight you see her fine umber self dressed in a gown of fresh plum, face framed with raincloud hair in a thousand braids. You know at once she is splendid.
“Oh, is that for me?” she says as you give her a rich saffron scarf. Thanks is a gentle touch to your cheek.
The table is spread. Together you enjoy black rum cake and rose-bright sorrel, dark fruits wondrously spiced.
You begin with, “I thought I’d say hello.”
“So did I,” says Ambrosia. “It was about time.”
“Will you come with me tonight?” (Why are you so awkward, what could she possibly—)
“I was thinking you’d never ask,” she smiles.
Up above, Liquorice Grin says, Ah, you’ve brought a new lovely friend.
You dance together, fox fur coppered in ghost light. Ambrosia shines like a moon. Your heart shouts. You are full up of her.
Story copyright © 2015 by Pear Nuallak
Artwork copyright © 2015 by Li Grabenstetter
Pear Nuallak is a small pug-like androgyne with a laugh like a Sailor Moon villain. Their work has appeared in Interfictions, Stone Telling, and The Toast. Born in London and raised by Bangkokian artists, they studied History of Art jointly at SOAS and UCL, specializing in Thai Buddhist art and enthusiastic yelling about postcolonialism. They cook Thai and British food and nurse a trio of ailing ballockworts in their tiny London flat.
A 2008 graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, Li Grabenstetter has a BFA in Printmaking and a minor in Drawing, and currently works as a freelance graphic designer and illustrator. Li draws inspiration from artists of the symbolist movement, from art nouveau, and from contemporary fantasy and comic book illustrators. Work is primarily in ink, graphite, and watercolour.