by Zen Cho
Yiling was riding home on her motorcycle when she saw the cat. It was late evening and the air was thick with smells, but the scent of the cat rang out like the clang of a temple bell, cutting through the stench of exhaust and the oil-in-the-nose smell of fried food wafting from the roadside stalls.
Yiling turned off the road and parked her motorcycle on the grassy verge next to the stalls. She bought two pyramidal packets of nasi lemak, each neatly wrapped in banana leaf, and some kuih: the sticky green kind layered with white santan, and triangles of pink-and-white kuih lapis. She thought of buying a durian—she liked to entertain well and did not get the chance to do it oftenbut she already had too much to carry.
As she walked back to her motorcycle she scooped up the cat. It had been looking elsewhere and by the time Yiling grasped it by the back of the neck it was too late for it to escape.
The cat’s claws came out; it hissed in indignation. Yiling ignored it. She put it on her lap and steered her motorcycle one-handed for the rest of the ride home.
It was not really home. Her parents lived in another house with her two siblings. Yiling rented a room in a terrace house with an acquaintance of her grandmother’s. The presence of the auntie went some way towards comforting her parents.
The auntie was not generous and the rent was high considering Yiling only had a bedroom to herself—the auntie did not even like Yiling to cook in the kitchen, or to watch TV in the living room. But the auntie was not interested in Yiling’s life and that suited Yiling.
She had never raised the issue of pets but would have been surprised if the auntie had welcomed the idea. Fortunately the auntie was not at home when Yiling got back and she got the cat up the stairs without incident.
Her room was not big, but there wasn’t much in it. It was made to look barer by the depressing quality of the light from the fluorescent lamp. The pale white light was unsteady as a drunken man and it gave everything a greyish, dirty look. This was even though everything in the room was very clean, from the scuffed parquet flooring to the pimpled whitewashed walls. Yiling had a bed, a cupboard for her clothes, and two chairs, one for herself and one for clients. She also had a small television which showed only three channels with any reliability.
When she set the cat down it began to explore, sniffing around the room. Yiling unwrapped one of the packets of nasi lemak and set it on the floor. She did not feel like going down the unlit stairs and through the dark abandoned house to the kitchen, so she sat on one of her chairs and ate her packet of nasi lemak with her hands. Her mother was nyonya, so she knew how to eat like this, using only her right hand to scoop up the food. From a corner of the room the cat watched her suspiciously, but after a while it came out and started on its rice.
Yiling had never liked cats. Even as a small child having dinner at a restaurant with her family, she jumped and screamed whenever a stray cat brushed past her legs under the table. Her brother and sister had liked to feed the cats surreptitious scraps from the table, but Yiling used to draw her feet up to her chair and refuse to let them down until she felt safe from that soft tickle of cat fur.
This cat could not have appealed even to a cat lover. It had a gaunt, scheming look and could have done with at least three baths. One of its hind legs was injured and it limped as it walked. Fortunately there was nothing wrong with its eyes. The diseased strays of her youth had often had eye problems and the dried liquid matting the fur around their filmy eyes had disgusted her more than anything else.
She was between jobs so that night she had nothing to do. She ate her kuih while watching TV. It was almost like being at home again: the buzz from the TV, the silence lying between her and the other living being in the room. The cat’s silence was less heavy than her parents’ silence, its breathing less of a repeating threat. That was an improvement on home.
She laid a sheet of plastic on the floor and for every piece of kuih she ate, she put one piece down on the sheet. While she stared at the TV she could sense the cat coming close to her leg and nibbling daintily at the kuih.
Before she went to bed she took a duvet out of her closet, which she did not use because she never turned on the air conditioning. She folded the duvet in half and then in half again and placed it on the floor. It made a high soft bed for any cats that might want one. She turned off the light and went to sleep without waiting to see if it was going to be used.
The next morning Yiling did not dare leave the door open for the cat in case it escaped. On the way out she told the auntie offhandedly that she had got a pet. She was out of the door before the auntie could begin to remonstrate.
Yiling held a diploma in Business Management from a local college. She worked at a small family-owned company which sold medicinal foot creams. Her precise role was not clear, but she did all sorts of things: kept the accounts, dealt with suppliers, and wrote marketing copy in Chinese, Malay and English.
Shortly after she had got the job the owners had retired and their daughter had taken over the management of the company. She was not much older than Yiling. She had got an MBA from an overseas university and sometimes still sounded mildly Australian, especially when speaking to customers. She rebranded Yiling as a marketing executive, which would sound well if Yiling ever moved to another job.
The daughter had a serious, pale face with fine skin and straight eyebrows like bridges over the dark water of her eyes. Yiling was strangely disappointed when she brought her well-off young friends to the office and they had loud conversations about the size of a friend’s engagement ring: “Must cost at least his three months’ salary or he doesn’t love you,” the daughter had said. A bubble of high meaningless laughter had drifted from her room.
Yiling had been living with the cat for two weeks when the memory of this incident came to her. Suddenly she felt sorry. It was unfair of her to think that because someone was beautiful, she must be interesting. Or that something must be interesting to her to be worthwhile. Really she had this feeling because she had so little in her life. She clung onto this sense of superiority to give herself significance. But there was nothing to be proud of in being different. There was nothing special about being lonely.
Returning to her empty room had always reminded her of this fact but somehow it did not bother her so much with the cat around. After three or four days she started leaving the bedroom door open. It was a gamble, but it paid off. The cat did not leave.
After a while when she came home she would see it curled up on top of the pillar next to the gate. When she got off her motorcycle to unlock the gate it would open one disdainful eye and peer at her, as if to say, “Oh, are you back?” Then it would jump off the wall and stalk into the house to make the point that it had not been waiting for her to return.
In this way affection returned to her life, so that the next time she met a client she was in a softened frame of mind. The client told a common story. She came, she said, because she had heard through a family friend that Yiling could do wonderful things. Her mother’s friend had had trouble with her son and Yiling had been able to fix it. Now she, Priya, also had trouble with a man, but this was a boyfriend rather than a son.
The boyfriend had first been her coworker, but they had become close because they had so much in common. He was clever and ambitious; he had a sense of humour; he was the kindest, most giving person. In the beginning they were only friends but it was no surprise that they should have fallen in love. Unfortunately the boyfriend already had a girlfriend. This was proving a minor obstacle to their romance.
“How come he don’t want break up with her?” said Yiling.
He wanted to, but things were complicated. It was a complicated relationship. Assuredly he and the girlfriend did not love each other, Priya said. He was always telling Priya about how the two of them fought, even before Priya had confessed her love to him. And the girlfriend—what a bitch, so heartless, so capricious it was difficult to see what had drawn him to her in the first place. She had no respect for his opinions, no interest in his ideas. She could not even fulfill him… you know… in that way. She could not make him happy.
And yet they were still together. Sometimes Priya’s beloved would say he could not spend time with Priya because he had an appointment with the girlfriend. But he did not even like her! He longed to break up with her, but his parents were fond of her and would be heartbroken if he dumped her. Besides, there was the girlfriend to think of. For all her faults, she was still someone he cared for. He did not want to hurt her feelings. She was very stressed at work. If he broke it off now, it might tip her over the edge.
Yiling felt doubtful of her power to help in such a situation, but when Priya wiped her eyes and said, “I don’t know what to do, I just want to be happy with him,” she felt a startling surge of sympathy. What a fragile necessary thing love was. She told Priya she would try to help her, but Priya must bring her something that smelled of her boyfriend.
“I work primarily with smells,” said Yiling. In fact she worked only with smells, but she felt pleased with the ‘primarily’—it had a crisp, businesslike, American feel to it.
When the consultation was over, Yiling let Priya out and went to find the cat. The cat was in the garden and withdrew when Yiling tried to pick it up. It refused to be conciliated even when Yiling tempted it with fried fish bought specially for the purpose. It eventually came back into the house but sat itself down next to the auntie in the living room to watch TV—the auntie had cable and had come to be on cordial terms with the cat.
Yiling left the door of her room open and went to bed feeling melancholy. She woke up in the middle of the night to a shadow hovering over her face. The only light in the room was from the streetlamp outside, filtered through the curtains. The windows were two dark glowing rectangles in the wall. In that non-light Yiling saw that the black blob was the cat, perched at the head of the bed and looking down at her. Yiling sat up and scratched behind the cat’s ears and rubbed its face while the cat purred. After a while they both lay down and went to sleep.
The next time Priya came, Yiling decided to let the cat stay in the room for the meeting. After all there was no way she would be able to keep the resulting work from the cat. If it was complex the job might take weeks.
The cat had fine manners. It pretended to sleep on its duvet throughout the interview.
Priya brought a football jersey which belonged to her boyfriend.
“It’s not so easy to do anything when the smell is not so strong,” said Yiling. Priya smiled in an embarrassed way.
“Hopefully it’s strong enough,” she said. “I never wash it since he wore it.”
She handed Yiling the jersey. There was no ‘hopefully’ about the odour that came off it. Yiling did not look at the cat because she was a professional and used to such things, but the temptation was strong.
Yiling was not about to ask how Priya had come to be in the possession of the boyfriend’s worn football jersey, but Priya seemed to feel that it begged an explanation. There was one night, she said shyly, when the girlfriend was outstation and Priya and the boyfriend had gone for a date. They had stayed at a mamak stall till late, and he had insisted on seeing her home because he was a gentleman. And one thing had led to another… Priya’s parents lived in Ipoh and she had come to KL for work. She lived alone.
“Nowadays these things don’t matter,” said Yiling, thinking, they did matter if the man had another girlfriend.
“Yes, yes,” said Priya. “We are both very modern about this kind of thing.” But her smiling eyes looked uncertain.
“So,” said Yiling. She shook out the jersey and the scent gusted out. It smelled of sweat. Under that lay the smell of good intentions, indecision. “What do you want me to do for you?”
“I want him to,” said Priya. She hesitated.
“You want him to choose you, is it?” said Yiling. Priya looked pained. Of course she told herself that he had already chosen her, and it was only external factors – his parents, his tender heart, his girlfriend’s late nights at the office – that kept him from declaring it to the world.
“I want him to be free to be with me,” said Priya.
“Har,” said Yiling. “Difficult.”
But the girl was lonely. At least Yiling had the cat.
“I see what I can do,” she said. “But no promises, OK?”
People had odd ideas about what she was able to do, but then to be fair her skill was not a conventional one. No one had ever heard of a smell magician, which was why her parents had not supported her in trying to make a career of it.
And even she was still in the process of figuring out what she could and could not do. She could craft things out of smells, but she could only make certain things. You could not make tomyam out of a block of pecorino cheese; similarly, you could not turn the smell of a philandering asshole into a loving boyfriend. She could reproduce a philandering asshole from the smell, but she did not think this was what Priya wanted.
Over the next few weeks she worked on the job in the evenings, after she had come home from work. The cat did not like the smell of the jersey and stayed away when Yiling was working, even though it was madly curious. Crouching on the floor like a tiny Sphinx, it gazed at her as she moved her hands over the fabric, her eyes half-closed and her mouth murmuring snatches of spells.
When she had done all she thought she could do, she arranged another meeting with Priya.
Priya did not say anything at first when she came. She sat down on the other chair, opened her mouth, then put her hand over it. Her eyes went red.
“He’s getting married to the girlfriend,” she said. “It’s over.”
“That bastard,” said Yiling.
“He’s not a bastard,” sobbed Priya. “It’s his parents, they are forcing him to do this.”
Yiling gave Priya the jersey. She had folded it and wrapped it in paper like something precious. She also gave Priya a piece of tissue paper.
Priya thanked her and blew her nose. She clutched the parcel as if her salvation lay in it. “What have you done with it?”
“I washed it,” said Yiling. She tapped the parcel. “That’s free, don’t worry. I had to do laundry anyway.
“Ma’am,” said Yiling. “I work very hard on this but I cannot do anything. When somebody is grown up already, they must make their own decision. I cannot change their mind for them.”
Priya stared at her through eyelashes beaded with tears.
“But you helped my mother’s friend,” she cried. “You changed Vijay’s mind—he went to America and he didn’t want to come back.”
“I brought back her son, but her son never went to America. Her son died,” Yiling said. “I know this will sound very funny. But it is easy for me to make a person from a smell. When I give her back her son, he was the same person he use to be when he was alive. But your ex is still alive and he is already one kind of person. I cannot make a different kind of person from his smell. I cannot change this alive person’s heart.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “But I really spend so many hours on this. And I won’t charge you. OK? You will move on. There is plenty of fish in the sea.”
Priya flashed her a look of hatred.
“Everybody says that,” she said. “But I only want one fish.”
Apart from this outburst she was polite enough. After all it would really have been fair for Yiling to charge her. She never made promises in terms of results. It was understood that the client took the risk.
When Priya had left, the cat said from behind Yiling’s back,
“That was generous of you.”
Yiling had known that this must happen sooner or later. Even so, it was difficult to make herself turn around. In fact it was the hardest thing she had ever done. It was not that she was afraid, but that she was shy.
When she finally managed to turn around, she saw that the cat was blushing. This made things a bit more comfortable.
The cat had long hair, curling in a wonderfully pretty way at the ends. She had round dark eyes and skin the colour of sandalwood. She was sitting in the bed and had covered herself with the blanket because she had no clothes. Yiling noted that she was Malay, but that would not be a problem. It was not like they could get married anyway.
Yiling sat back down on her chair. She felt oddly formal.
“Actually, Puan Thanga already paid me double to tell Priya her boyfriend is useless,” she said. “She knew Priya from small. Her son Vijay used to date Priya in school. She said Priya only start liking this new guy after Vijay so-called went to America. Now he is back Puan Thanga is hoping they will start to like each other again. She told me she always wanted a daughter and when Priya and Vijay were going out she felt like Priya is her own daughter. She thinks they are perfect for each other.”
“Sibuk,” said the cat disapprovingly. “So busybody.”
Yiling shrugged. It was in the nature of aunties to be busybodies.
“This Vijay is a good guy,” said Yiling. “I can tell from his smell. I never remake a dead person unless I think they are a good person. Enough useless people in the world already.”
“So you lied?” said the cat. “You could change the boyfriend’s mind if you want?”
“I don’t lie to my clients,” said Yiling sternly. “Everything I said was true. But it’s not my business if my clients want to pay me extra for doing something sensible.”
She looked at the cat for a while, just for the pleasure of it, and the cat looked at her. The cat was still thin, but not as thin as she had been when Yiling had first taken her home.
“I’m sorry I kidnap you,” said Yiling. The cat waved one elegant hand.
“Not to worry,” she said. “I would have run away if I wanted to. But we must stop living like this. You don’t eat properly. Hawker food is okay, but not every day. I can cook for you, I am a very good cook. It’s good you like Malay food. We will move to our own apartment so that auntie cannot know all our business. She always come into this room in the afternoon to snoop around.”
“Oh,” said Yiling.
“Never mind, she never find out anything. You don’t own anything interesting also,” said the cat. “That’s one more thing, you must have a nicer room. Living in one room like this, how to be comfortable? We will make sure you have an office for your work in our new place. I will set up the business for you. With your talent you don’t have to only work for scheming aunties. If you advertise your talent better you can get more customers, earn more money.”
“But an apartment will be expensive,” said Yiling, because she could not think of anything better to say.
“No! One bedroom, one room for the office, kitchen and bathroom,” said the cat. “We don’t need so much to start with. Simple-simple enough already.”
“One bedroom?” said Yiling.
The cat was surprised. She looked at her intently. Then she sat up, reached over and took Yiling’s hand.
“Of course,” said the cat. “That’s why I ran away from my parents’ house. Somebody told my boss at work and I got fired and I panic and ran away. Ended up no money, no house, must sleep on the street. So I thought it was safer to be a cat. That’s the only thing I can do. I’m not so clever as you, I cannot do all this spell or what. What happen to you?”
Yiling stared at their joined hands. She did magic and she liked girls. She lived alone because she was not the kind of daughter anyone would have asked for.
“Nothing happen,” said Yiling.
She had just packed a bag one day, stepped out of her parents’ house, and never gone back. There had been no precipitating event behind it, no big fight with her parents. She had not even had a girlfriend to leave for.
“Nothing happen,” she said again. “I just don’t like lying.”
“Good,” said the cat. “My name is Ada. You knew, right?” She did not mean her name.
“I always know who people are,” said Yiling. “By their smell. That’s the one thing nobody can lie about.”
But Ada was not listening to this philosophising. She was of a practical bent. She said,
“But first, before we do all this thing, you must get me some clothes, OK, sayang? – Can I call you sayang?”
“Please,” said Yiling. “Feel free.”More stories like this by topic: Asia, Authors of color, Characters of color, LGB characters, Malaysia, Malaysian authors, Southeast Asian speculative fiction, Women authors