Nicola works in architecture in London, having lived between Malaysia and the UK. Her creative non-fiction has been published in Epoch Press. She writes both short fiction and full-length novels, and recently graduated from Faber Academy’s Writing a Novel course. A Malaysian setting inspires her work, and she is drawn to magic realism and mythology in her writing. Follow her at @NicolaSheppey on Twitter and Instagram.
A young woman is placed in postpartum confinement and feels a malevolent presence threatening to invade.
I saw a pontianak, once, when I was a child. She was squatting in a tree, stance like a spider, legs splayed in a dancer’s plie. Her hair fell down her face, down to drape around the branch, and a white strip of bark showed the sign of nails peeling it back – a threat of what was to come, when she’d embed those fingernails into skin. She had no face, or at least I couldn’t see it. I didn’t freeze or wait for movement – as soon as her form took shape, I turned and ran, my feet tripping over the rough ground, my toes hitting twigs. By the time I arrived home, I must have been crying, for I remember the reaction – the servants’ wails, my mother’s rough hands. You’ll bring her to us, she shrieked. My dad reached for the belt, angry for reasons I can’t pinpoint; my brother mimicked this later, though his beatings barely hurt in comparison. Throughout the mayhem, an understanding beginning to fester within me, a knowledge that one day she would come back for me. The most hideous, horrible thing, a woman without a child.
The day has come. Is coming. I’ve been locked in here to wait out my impurity, and throughout it all I look up at the domed ceiling above me and listen for the scrape, for the child’s laugh. I pinch my nose to block out the smell before it can reach me. My nail beds ache. I’ve been chewing at my fingers, picking dry skin from the edges, biting and peeling. I gnaw at the skin until the red layers glow, and even when it hurts I keep going, waiting for the natural end, the moment of clean finality. When there are no more parts to pick. I’ve put plasters on to cover the raw skin and redness. One has come off and the skin is thick and white, as if it’s begun to rot. It’s on the tip of my middle finger and it startles me when I look down at my hands. A shock of white, like I’ve stuck my middle finger into bleach.
Sometimes I find remnants of chilli buried under the nail bed. The weak skin on my tongue burns lightly, like a flame just grazing it, not leaving its impact.
I’ve failed my family. In impurity, in giving birth too early, in taking unwieldy control of something God had in hand, I’ve failed them all. I don’t know how to avoid it, escape it, except to wait. And so I wait, banished to this room. I wish it wasn’t a pattern of sin and redemption. I wish, I wish.
I look to my brother. For guidance. My brother is an angel, a higher being. When he enters a room he glows, and the light hits him in splinters, making him look like an abstract painting. He smiles into a space and it becomes new. So broad and strong, his chest flat, his legs apart when he stands. His manner is impregnated by his humble deference to our father, the only person he bows his head to. My father, the immortal among us, so bright I can’t look directly at him. A man who doesn’t need to command a room with a smile.
In comparison, how can I, so small, fail my father? I who can only be impregnated literally. I suppose that’s his meaning: my body has failed us all. But it might succeed again. After I’ve washed my sins away from me, and the pontianak can only wait outside.
Siti can’t wait outside. In and out she comes, like a horrible little mouse, bringing her gifts of food and water. I play a game with her when her incompetence embarrasses me, even in the privacy of this room. When the very association with her makes me feel stained.
‘Siti, you’ve dropped the rice,’ I’ll say, and she’ll twist to inspect it, then drop something in its place. Then I can let loose and scold her. My father used to play this game with me. I enjoy being on the other side of it. Siti is such an idiot, so obedient. She takes each verbal blow with her head bowed. This makes me hate her more.
At night, I dream about my baby. A beautiful creature, dark curls and eyes of green and grey, the colour of a lake under a cloudy sky. Her skin is so new to the world it’s barely blemished. A perfect being, free from the puckers of existing, the scars, sun freckles, split hair, weathered lines. She’s who I’m meant to be – maybe who I once was; this is God’s way of giving me a second chance, a new bud to bloom. Her hands, for example, barely have any lines. Whenever I look down at my own, all I can see are the crevices.
She burst from a broken body: clean and new, while I bubbled with blood. God has also given me the gift of forgetting my birth. I read about this once: memory blocking trauma without permission. A frozen moment tucked inside me, ready to burst forth when it’s ready.
Siti is so young and quaky. Bows her head when she speaks to me. Go on girl, I want to scream, stand up straight. Here’s a safe space: I want cheek, I want bite in her voice, someone to spar with. Instead she chastises herself and is frightened of the world around her, as if she’s cornered by her own misdeeds. The mouse that twitches at its own shadow and runs into the snake’s fangs. Does that make me the snake?
‘Siti, go on.’ I’m gentle, coaxing. My tongue is outstretched, I’m tasting the air. ‘My brother will come if you ask. Please. He’ll bring the baby.’
‘Oh, so much left over.’ She’s not looking at me, but bending down over my bowl of food. ‘You never eat it all. I’m in trouble.’
‘It hurts my teeth. The backs. See?’ I open my mouth and prod at my molars, and Siti looks over. I wonder if she’ll smile at my gawping face. She flicks her head back and her eyes flare, like she’s come up against a shock. I pull my finger from my mouth.
‘Get out, then. You stupid girl.’ I drag out the ‘styoo’ – I want it to bruise. ‘I’ll throw those leftovers in your face. You eat them, then you won’t get punished.’
There’s that look again. Her shoulders hunch and she shrinks in. I used to make her laugh.
Another day drags into nothing. Sick and weakened, still bleeding. The only real proof of the birth is the blood, wriggling out of me like a slug. Clumped and mottled, it makes me sick. It looks like disease, or bacteria blown up to a million times its size. The little bathroom here is riddled with brown stains. I try to rub them into the ceramic of the sink with my finger, expecting them to disappear the way water does on skin, but instead they smear. It’s the same colour as the domed ceiling in here. I wondered, for a while, why I felt low, gripped by something unseen – now I realise the red is dragging the light towards it, holding it captive. It doesn’t bounce off the walls the way white walls allow, and I hate it.
Impure. The messy and degrading and wholly humbling experience of birth has tarnished me. I may never be able to lick the salt away from under my nails. The chilli and the dirt.
I’ve been given a tablet with 29% battery and access to some of the internet. None of the best websites, and certainly no way to contact anyone. Before I sleep I’ve taken to reading long, deep articles that unravel stories like spools behind the humming glow of the screen. If I can learn – about what it is to survive a lightning strike, about how Inuit people survive on fatty diets, about astrophysics and Cassini slingshotting towards the outer edge of the solar system and the mutation of the Internet ruining the minds of our teenagers – I can teach the baby something. If I can read, again and again, women’s harsh and jagged recountings of giving birth, read about the blood and the stickiness – always ending, of course, with the existential meaning of it all – I might remember what it felt like.
What use is a mother and a woman who doesn’t know a thing. What can I have, if not it all.
But tonight, by the time I slip under the stale-smelling sheets, musty with dried sweat,
a particular smell I quietly adore, I have no need to read. My mind has closed itself. There’s a lingering sickness that lives in me, crouching low, undisturbed, like the steady whine of tinnitus. Grumbling against my bones.
At midnight – or so I assume – a thud, down below. At the bottom of the staircase. I sit up. My brother, he’s coming with the baby! He had to do it at night, away from Dad’s eyes. She’ll need me, my flesh and milk. My breasts have been aching, but now a knife of
pain shoots through each one – perfect symmetry. My baby is coming. Our bodies are twinned.
The door opens. ‘Miss Shyamala?’ A stage whisper, running up the stairs.
Siti. Strange. She wouldn’t be given the baby. She’s no wet nurse. She hurries up into my room, neat and well for this hour. At the sight of her I feel acid rise, let breath escape me in large gurgles. She gives me indigestion. The stabs in my breasts dull into pokes.
‘You don’t have her,’ I say.
‘Please, come with me, Miss.’ She runs around the room, picks up the corpses of my clothes. It’s a slog, leaving bed for nothing, so I don’t move. Still, this is intriguing, an accented moment in the night. Something to puncture the repetitiveness.
‘I can’t leave. I have to wait it out.’ I roll back, the pillow under my neck, so my head lolls. The pain drips down to my stomach: a slow descent. ‘I can wait.’
‘No, no. This is not ending.’ Siti seems close to tears. The familiarity in her voice, the way she speaks to me like an equal makes me want to slap her. You wicked, wicked girl, I think.
‘This happened to my mother. She was never let out. Please, Miss, come with me.’
I want to reach out and place my hands around her neck, press the soft skin at the base of her collar, so she will feel the same lump and loss of breath, the panic and the fear. She will share it with me.
‘I can’t, Siti.’ I wail, thrash, whine with my eyes closed. I want to scare her. ‘I’m too sick. I need to wait it out. Then I’ll be pure–’
I stop when I feel her little hands touch me, feeble presses on my arms. ‘Please, Miss. Please.’
There’s a higher consciousness floating above me, and as she speaks it steps down into my body, hissing words into my ear: if you leave, you can see the baby. After that, resistance does not exist. I float up, take Siti’s hand, move down the staircase with her. She’s holding a bundle of my clothes to her chest with her other arm, and the stance looks like she’s holding a child, and the soles of my feet ache at the sight.
When she comes to the bottom of the stairs, she screams. I hear my father’s voice. ‘What are you doing?’
I reach the bottom and through the open door I see him for the first time in six days. He’s thin and frightened, and he looks at me with horror; no recognition. Beneath all that, a familiar bubble of fury in his brow. I am drawn to look at his hands, the spiders that look so white against the rest of his skin.
‘She’s dangerous, no!’
He comes forward and one of the spiders reaches out – I am thrown back on to the stairs, my back hitting the lines of each step in individual places, like a ladder running up my skin. The door shuts. Siti is gone with my clothes. What a strange joke.
I’m feeling much better. The sickness is dwindling. I’m enjoying the calm, the relative peace. My ears still strain for the sound of crying, but more often than not I’m distracted by the smell of flowers and the sound of a boy laughing outside. I can’t open the window in here and even if I could I wouldn’t want to let the heat in, but if I press my ear up against the edge of the window I can hear him giggling down below. Playmates.
Everyone told me having a baby would be giving away a part of myself, breaking off a chunk of my body like a biscuit and handing it out to consume. Now that I’ve got her I want to crumble myself into pieces for her to chew on. This is what I was created to do, and the former sense of me is dead. I’m rooted in my maturity: a wise mother and a woman. (I overestimate my wisdom; I’ve still got twenty-eight teeth.)
I feel good – I feel beautiful. My skin shining, lips plump. Something soft. I’m enjoying the beauty of the world, too. The light of the sunset comes in gently, and even the red ceiling looks nice under its light, deepened to burgundy. Royal colours, baroque.
Reminds me of western kings and their velvet crowns, or the cartoon versions I’ve seen on TV. At the right time of day, at the right angle, I can see a milky sky through the window, light blue, with clouds or smoke streamed across like it’s a water painting. I wish I could see more, see something down below.
These are the good moments, the clear moments. But in the bad moments, I rerun my father’s face in my mind at the bottom of the stairs. Rage and fear spun together, churned like coconut in brown sugar. You can’t see the lumps. It’s familiar, it flashes me to something, somewhere else. Nothing specific that I can pause on. This is my memory again, glitching, overriding and wiping the rest like an insidious computer virus. A living organism, or not quite, but something breathing in the system nonetheless.
She’s in here with me, I can feel it. Sometimes I feel her inside me, the walls stretching, the screaming pain of it. In the middle of the night, when I wake, I know she’s watching, I can feel the scrape of her fingernails on my ankle – but when I look up, she vanishes into the dark.
The wind keeps hitting the slanted window and it sounds like many hands smacking the glass. It wants to tell me something. I try to let it in, but the window frame holds tight. I might run out of oxygen in here and I doubt it would even relent.
What happened to Siti? My brother, I need him.
A day passes and then a night. The tablet battery sinks. As if dramatising its own death the light on the tablet drops as it dies, like eyes drooping. I have to squint to read. I live in fear that it’ll vanish before I’m out of here, that I’ll have lost two heartbeats in the rhythm of my day, Siti’s visits and night-time reading. I don’t realise I haven’t eaten until the morning comes again, but I don’t mind – fasting is cleansing. If only I had more energy.
The blood, the endless blood. I wash and scrub and scrape with my fingernails (still growing, still aching). I dry my clothes and start again.
In the middle of the day, the time which I call meditation, which would be more accurately described as staring at the red ceiling and sinking into a trance, the door moves. My body tenses and locks into a plank. Something is fluttering inside me, teased out by fear. I want to cry out. My father’s face shoots over mine, and now I can hear ragged breath too, rattling gasps.
My brother’s high voice, dripping with sugar. He’s finally here. I relax and sink on to the floor, pooling out. I can’t get up; I lie with my limbs crossed and wait for him to ascend. Maybe he’ll put the baby on my chest. I go to lift my nightdress in anticipation, but my muscles spasm and my arms twist up.
‘Shimi? Oh my God. You look.’ He doesn’t finish. I lift my head, see him. He looks plump with clear skin. Well-fed and well-rested, free of blood, sturdy. There’s no baby in his arms.
‘Shimi. Oh my God,’ he repeats. He’s stopped at the top of the staircase, one step down, like he doesn’t want to close the space between him and the door. This stings me.
I sit up. ‘Ettan. How long do I have left in here? When can I come out?’
He looks as if he might cry. I’ve never seen this expression on him, and now I’m the shrinking one, I’m Siti, creeping and meek and avoiding the snake.
‘How long, Ettan?’
He takes another step down and closes his eyes, and tears spill down his face.
Somehow he has made the act of crying masculine. Never before have I felt the difference between us like this, seeping into me. He might as well have stamped on my neck.
‘We can’t let you out.’ He theatrically sobs. ‘Dad says we have to wait for the danger to pass–’
‘He’s the danger,’ I say. My brother frowns at me, and I realise what I have said, and try to correct myself. ‘Ettan, please. The baby.’ I roll up now and crawl, and he trips down the steps as if frightened I might attack him.
‘I’m not supposed to be here.’
I am not dangerous. I am not wicked. My father’s voice is bouncing off the walls: you wicked, wicked girl.
‘Shimi, what you did,’ he stops to gulp, to drink in my precious air, ‘is terrible. To make yourself lose – to take away something so pure. I wanted to see you, in case. But look.’ His voice pinches into a whine. ‘Your fingernails.’
I look down at them with interest. They’re long and pointed, and I realise there is no baby.
‘Siti tried to let me out.’
He shakes his head and raises a hand to his face, heaving breaths. ‘You can let me out,’ I say.
‘How could you, Shimi? I can smell flowers.’ He looks at my face, stunned. ‘It’s here. One of those things is in here.’
He’s understood. I don’t have much time. ‘You have to let me out. He’s torturing me.
I’m being punished. If I stay here, the pontianak–’ ‘No. No.’
He turns and I thrust myself forwards and a nail catches on his ankle. His skin flashes red and he yells. He turns to kick me away. His foot misses, and as I roll to the side, I feel the flutter, borne down from the violence, the degradation: the first twitch of life inside me. The new baby.
I shout his name. He’s rushing down the stairs, and he pulls at the door so forcefully it nearly breaks in his hand. It is slammed and locked. I am halfway down, lying neat on my front, my arms outstretched in prayer. Reaching for a freedom that is forever lost. Behind me, the soft ping of the tablet tells me the battery is dead.
The mouse is still tweaking and squeaking its way around the skirting board. I have an intrusive urge to put it in my mouth, to suck. To see what would happen; would it convulse, would it die. Right in the snake’s gaping mouth. Would it burst, would it taste of the sickly flowers that follow me around? Or the metal, singing taste of blood? I won’t do it, and the mouse won’t know either way. Unless. The thought of making an animal afraid is a petty snack, compared to the meal before me.
The edges of my vision are blotted, and it feels like the edges of my mind are smeared, too. If I focus, I can feel – but if I lapse for a moment, the whole thing morphs into one. The experience of being. When the boy laughs outside I can’t hear the emotion of it any more, just the accents, the framework of the sound, the core of it. I don’t know what time it is, I don’t know when I last slept. I could be asleep now. I’m living in the twilight hour while the mouse runs laps around the room. When was the last time I ate anything? My baby’s gone, she’s gone. A tiny red thing. I’d swallowed everything I could to push her out of me. I don’t even know if she was a girl, but her frailty suggested it.
God’s punishment is merciful. I can be merciful. I can sacrifice myself and take my father with me, to cleanse his impurity. My brother too, for not taking me into the light when he could, for letting this parasite overcome me.
The playmate down below is calling for me. The wind still calls for me too, pulsing against the frame. My fingernails are long and catching, but I have to wait until the time is right. I sharpen them against the wall. My hair falls in one matted clump down to my ankles. My arms free, no baby. Now I see she was not the frail one.
I know the time is right when I can hear music thrumming in my head, deep sounds. I let the tripping noise guide me down. Then the new baby comes. I’m on the other side of the memory now, resting in a tree while a small girl sees me and runs away. They always made it sound like something to fear. This is not terror, this is purity.
There are singers spitting and a beat pounding in the room. I don’t know if anyone else can hear it. I think of Siti and her mother as I descend, picture pointed heels as long as my fingernails. Siti will never know what it is to be this, but I might meet her mother at the end. It occurs to me that I never embraced what it is to be alone, all that time in this room, all those nights, never let my fingers stray, and I realise what was robbed from me.
I’m stumbling over my own hair, knots caught up like black snowflakes. It’s longer than it ever was. There’s blood pulsing down, and I tread through it, but I don’t feel it in my physical self. With every movement I am shedding my skin, my shell.
I don’t pause at the door, and it does not resist me. I’m back in the house, but a shadowed twist of it, with reds and blacks dripping down the walls. God’s gift to me; the patterns of revenge. I move. I am.
By the time I’m downstairs and see my father’s rolling eyes in front of me, I might as well be in heaven. Now I am the immortal among us. When I reach in and penetrate, and his skin breaks and the gape of his screaming mouth sings a note I can’t hear, I let the flood come. Purity has a sweetness to it. I can see why they kept me aside to taste it.