Ho Sok Fong imagines the future in a country where houses have warped into funnels, the horizon has tilted, and talking openly about what is happening has become taboo.
We all know this is a wounded country. People bear wounds like moth faces on their backs. They see everyone else’s but not their own. My mother tells me not to go on about faces on backs; my paternal grandmother used to say this too. I know why my mother says it: if other people’s backs have those kinds of faces, then so do ours.
When we don’t feel like talking, we look at the stars. We can relax a little like that. For a few moments, we can break away from our strange, tilted horizon.
Many years ago, my grandfather beat my grandmother. For decades after, he ate all his meals seated to her right, because from her right he could not see the hollow his fist had smashed into her left cheek. Seeing that hollow made him uneasy.
My grandmother does not remember how she got here. She thinks she might have fallen from a violently rocking house. The house flew past rubber plantations, raging fires, massacres; horrifying scenes like that. During the journey she lost a child. The child had been playing in the house but when the shaking started the child fell out of the window.
My grandmother, mother and I do not think our house will ever be good again. The house began as a rectangular pigeon loft, but over the years has warped into a funnel. Now, the floor is crooked. Living inside the funnel, we have had to adapt to feeling unbalanced. We have had to learn to stand and sit crooked, whether we are bathing or cooking dinner. Time has passed and our bones have twisted, pulled and folded over, re-organising themselves, and now we feel that living this way is fine. We’re used to it. I have to survive, and so do my mother and grandmother. So does everyone. In order to survive together, we made an agreement: forget the past. But it was when we made the agreement that the house began to change.
All things will be forgotten and we’ll all be more comfortable for it. In the air as things depart, jasmine is left to soothe us. In July, at seven o’clock every evening, the flowers on my grandmother’s jasmine plants open. The scent fills the kitchen, the living room, the bedroom, piles of folded clothes. Everywhere the faintly tart scent of jasmine.
It’s not bad, living all together like this, because my grandmother, my mother, and everyone else are all good people. It’s not bad aside from the worry about the crookedness, which grows worse every year. The horizon tilts. Wherever I walk I feel unsteady. But most people claim they feel fine, and what can I say to that? Sometimes, on the bus, or clocking in at work, I have the strong sensation that my body is falling through the nothingness of the air, into a deep chasm. But I cannot confirm it. It’s as though, below the horizon, there’s a monster pulling out the ground and swallowing it up. It’s the kind of monster that only appears in dreams.
The monster doesn’t come out in daylight. Everyone is fine during the day, so long as everyone keeps their worries to themselves.
For example, worries about the strange horizon. ‘Tilted’ has become a taboo word. So have ‘crooked’ and ‘askew’. But you see them often on the backs of toilet doors. Sometimes I notice clocks, photos, paintings that are hung crookedly on other people’s walls. Then I think, Our house is just the same! There is not a single house without a skewed axis.
There’s no point in leaving. People who have left say that the horizon is strange in other places too, maybe even stranger than here.
Inside our house we have to hunch over to move and it keeps getting smaller. The sunken part of the floor dips more sharply, grows more fragile. Our beds stand on the crooked floor. The beds stand firm but for some reason I feel like all the furniture is collapsing and the floor is growing weaker. Sometimes my dreams conjure another conical shape, this one upside down, to balance out our increasingly challenging funnel. Sometimes my dreams conjure nothing at all. We open the door and there is nothing outside.
In our sharp cone of a house, each year flies by faster than the last. My grandmother no longer knows the names of things. She does not remember the place by the stove for salt, sugar and tea leaves, the smell of fruit, or the way to the local clinic and pasar. She can’t say brush teeth, climb stairs, comb hair. She has forgotten verbs.
Whenever Grandma tries to recall something and her words clump and stick, I feel unwell. It’s as if a snake is coiled inside my stomach, exhaling its icy, rancid breath to block my breathing.
I often see people gathered inside their houses, talking heatedly. What they say cannot be heard by the tenants in the house next door. A person can talk as loudly as they like, and not even the other people in the room will hear them. They may as well be speaking into holes in a tree. Or, maybe everyone can hear perfectly well but they don’t dare respond. They do not dare say, ‘I hear you’. They are scared that hearing will be like a needle in their open chests, and it will hurt them.
I’m scared too. Each sentence could be wrong and fall like a giant knife, sticking into the ground like a giant wall. No one will be able to cross it. The only way to heal all these wounds is with magic words. But what words are those?
When my heart aches for no discernible reason, I do what my grandmother and mother do, and look at the stars. My grandmother and mother rarely use calendars; they can tell the day by the moon.
My back has a moth face just like yours, says my mother.
She talks as if she has understood the face on her own back.
Right now the face on my back must mask a trembling child. All day long, I have been upset by what’s outside. I have understood that I am maybe just a weed, unworthy of nurture. All day, I leaned out of my tiny window and looked down at the street, where a crowd demonstrated against racial equality. They yelled a sea of slogans and it sounded like someone frantically whirling a sack of nightmares, words falling through the holes and smacking onto the ground like clods of cow shit. But at the back, behind the ranks of marchers, moth faces flickered and flapped, flowing silently beneath the window like a separate tide of panic. Then evening came and the state television channel said, At the end of the day, this is still a fine and harmonious country. We must all work to keep it that way.
I am used to feeling disappointed. There’s nothing strange about that. My mother and I lean back and look up and the night sky looks full of pinpricks. A bitter feeling has been collecting beneath my jaw and seeping into my cheeks; now it vanishes.
Ma, I say. If you’re tired, go to sleep.
But she says, The sky looks like a watermelon.
Eventually we will find the language to listen to the moth faces. Then the noise and silences will finally reach the monster beneath the horizon.
Beneath the stars, the moth eyes on my mother’s back gaze back at me, for a long, long time.
Ho Sok Fong is the author of two story collections, Maze Carpet and Lake Like a Mirror, a portrait of Malaysian society in nine stories. It won a PEN Presents and a PEN Translates award, and will be published in English by Granta Books in 2019, translated by Natascha Bruce. She is the 2016 recipient of a Taiwan National Culture & Arts Foundation grant, to support the completion of her first novel, The Forest in Full Bloom.
This text was translated by Natascha Bruce.