Saturday, November 30, 2013

From Shih-Li Kow's new novel

The Millers Go Fishing
(This is an extract from the next book -- a novel -- by Shih-Li Kow which will be released soon.)

Shi-Li imageAt nine in the morning, the Millers bustled about making their presence felt. They shouted their good mornings and complimented Beevi on the greasy noodle breakfast. The quality of Beevi’s cooking was capricious; I suspected it echoed her mood, bland when she was bored, over-flavoured when stressed, and near inedible when she was in a sulk. The cooking of a Beevi at rest, in equilibrium, was a mystery.

The Millers told her that they were off to see the three lakes. I had arranged for them to pay Ismet to take them out, and Mr Miller wanted to fish. Mrs Miller said with an exaggerated sigh, “I will be so bored, but he does like to fish.” I was the fourth person in this fishing party. Too many weeks had gone by since I was last out on the water and I looked forward to the trip. I was accustomed to Ismet’s company, but I had to endure the other two.

We drove out to the jetty in the Millers’ rented Myvi.  Mr Miller wanted to drive and hunched into the driver’s seat with the car fitting around him like an armoured matchbox. A large man like him should have picked a bigger car. I imagined Peggy Miller at the rent-a-car counter in the airport, standing beside her trolley bags, saying, “Aw, honey. We gotta rent ourselves a little May-lay-sian car. We gotta see for ourselves how bad it drives.”  To be fair, I hardly knew Mrs Miller, and certainly not well enough to be foisting these assumptions on her. She was probably a perfectly nice woman, but, well, I just did not like her face. As long as I did not tell her that, we could keep up pretences of hospitality.

The further away from town we drove, the narrower the roads became, until there was no curb and the scrub grew right up to the verge of the tarmac. “Turn left there, after the signboard,” Ismet said and pointed at a faded sign put up by the Ministry of Cultural Diversity, Heritage and Tourism, exhorting eco-tourism. “Fourth Wife Lake. Discover the Natural Wonders of Malaysia,” it said. Someone had sprayed a black line of paint over ‘Wonders’ and written ‘Wankers’ over it. I found it mildly funny. It was not a common word spoken in Lubok Sayong, let alone seen in writing.

We got off the road onto a path rutted by motorcycles that ran the half kilometre to the lakes. This was edged by a wall of weed on both sides, so tall that some feathered tips bent over to dust the top of our car. Some had been flattened, perhaps by a car before us that had to make way for another, and long broken blades lay injured on the ground. We churned up old mud, and heard the occasional clod of laterite thud against our undercarriage. Mrs Miller, seated with me in the back, was uncomplaining and took the heat and bumps in good spirit.

Mr Miller laughed and said, “Here we go. Parting the green sea.” He slowed for Mrs Miller to take a picture.

We saw the hill first. The cliff rose up ahead, a monolithic, chalky limestone mass with dense dark trees. Then the lakes came into sight, blackish green and unreflective despite the stillness of the water. Where you would have expected a mirror, reflecting a dilute blue sky with cobweb clouds floating on its surface, there was none. Fourth Wife Lake swallowed all reflections and offered no such prettiness. There was a slight murmur of rain, but the sun took over and the rain clouds held back their incontinence, obedient before the daylight and the patron saint of anglers. If there was any threat of rain, I sensed it in the fullness of the lake rather than the sky.

When we reached the jetty, we saw a few motorcycles parked haphazardly on the grass like grazing animals. Our hired craft, a tourist boat that took visitors on a loop of the lake, was waiting. For ten ringgit, one put on a grimy life-vest, sat on one of the eight plastic seats that collected water to wet unsuspecting bottoms, and got up close below the limestone crags to see the dark, yawning maws of the caves. An outcrop with a lone bush jutting out from the cliff wall had become something to point at, and say, “There’s where the princess jumped,” a nice highlight to the story.

With few tourists, the boat was hardly used. Mrs Miller seemed to know what she had to do. She took a towel out of her bag and dried her seat. Then, she applied mosquito repellent on her arms. Husband and wife both slipped on the life-vests hanging next to their seats.

Ismet gunned the engine and took the boat on a big showy curve. A crescent wave fanned out behind us. The men fishing on the banks waved and forgave the noise we were making. Mrs Miller waved back, smiling. We made a sweep near the limestone for the Millers to take photographs. I was in no mood to do the tour-guide babble, so I kept my mouth shut, and pretended to inspect my rods and buckets. I did not point at the outcrop, and I ignored Ismet when he looked at me. His English was not good enough to narrate the whole story of the princess and the cad, but I was not talking that day. If I talked, those tourists would talk back, and I wanted to fish, not make polite noises and play the simpering native.

I had a plastic tub of crickets and worms for bait. I also had some chicken skin seasoned with fish food that I wanted to try out. It was an idea I borrowed from Swamp People, those alligator hunters I watched on Astro. We had a spare fishing rod for Mr Miller. Ismet took the boat out to the middle of the lake, into the shade the cliffs cast upon the water, and cut the engine. Mrs Miller pulled out a book from her bag.

Mr Miller took up his position at the prow and shed his life-vest that was making him sweat. I saw that his shirt was thoroughly wet, the damp circles that started at his armpits becoming indistinguishable from the rest of his shirt. I sat at the back with a bucket and my bait. With a reverent anticipation of pleasure, I switched off my mobile phone.  In recent years, telecommunications signals had improved so much that we could receive calls out in the middle of the lake. Instead of air and sky overhead and the purity of space beyond, we lived beneath a new sheltering sky of invisible waves carrying conversations, packets of data transfer and millions of pornographic downloads. It was an unpleasant thought that reminded me of dying cells and cancers.

I waved my phone at Ismet. He said, “Already put my phone on silent, bro.”


I strung an earthworm with a tag of chicken skin and cast it, my heartbeat slowing as I settled into the wait. I loved fishing for the meditative stupor that came with the wait. There were not many things for which I professed enduring love. Fishing was one of the few, and it had become better now with time no longer a luxury. Much like, or maybe even more life affirming, than a leisurely act of copulation when there was no clock ticking.

The silence was bone deep and rich with solitary pleasure. There was an occasional hoot of howler monkeys, a flutter of a bird in the trees, a call that echoed off the cliff and the vibration of insects, tremulous and unseen. The water was grey green, clear and clean, but I could not see through the depths. It was like trying to peer through tinted glass and seeing only shadows and reflections.

The boat bobbed gently and I lost sense of time. I sank into the familiar motion and forgot Ismet, the woman flipping the pages of her book, and the man in the front turning red in the sun.

No one spoke to me. I did not know if Ismet or Mr Miller caught anything. I simply drifted. Occasionally I drew the line in, changed the bait and cast it out again, gently, ever so gently with a short swing of arm and a flick of wrist. There was a bank of lotuses in bloom by the far side of the lake. The flowers were wide open, pink, tall and extravagantly beautiful. No one was harvesting lotus roots; they were unmolested.

I caught a toman and a small ikan hantu that I unhooked and threw back into the water. I glanced over at Ismet. He squatted on a seat, with his sleeves pulled up over his shoulders, typing text messages on his mobile phone with two thumbs. His fishing rod was wedged between the seats. Mrs Miller had her book face down, splayed on her lap. Her wide-brimmed straw hat shielded her eyes as she dozed peacefully.

“Holy shit,” Mr Miller said suddenly. His line went taut. He fought and loosened, reeling in a fish. I watched him brace, shifting his weight back, rocking the boat a little. His movements were smooth and practiced.

The lake had yielded some big ones before, the biggest I had seen being the toman hooked by Cikgu Teh in a fishing competition a few years ago. He still carried a picture of it in his wallet. Mr Miller reeled in one revolution and lifted the curving rod. The fish fought under water, straining against the pull, but we could not see it yet.

Mr Miller said, “It’s a monster, guys. Real big.”

Ismet stopped to watch. Mrs Miller took out her camera and started taking photographs.  Mr Miller put a foot up on the step at the prow and leaned back.

“Honey …” Mrs Miller started. Before she could finish, he was in the water with a shout. Ismet rushed forward, ready to dive in. We saw Mr Miller surface, bobbing in the water, waving and grinning. His glasses were still on his face. Ismet threw out the lifesaver and we all started laughing, even Mrs Miller.

Mr Miller shouted from the water, “Sorry guys, I lost the line and the fish. Isn’t this something to tell the folks back home?”

We laughed until we saw a moving ripple in the water, travelling towards Mr Miller.

“Get out,” Ismet shouted.

Fear gripped me, hollowing my gut. Ismet leaned over and stretched an arm out. “Quick, quick,” he shouted. Mr Miller swam with his head above water. He was two strokes from the boat, a silly smile splitting his face. I could not see what was below the ripple, but it was fast, heading straight for the man like a homing missile. I looked around for something, anything, to throw at the thing that was coming. There was nothing at hand except Mrs Miller’s book and shoes that she had slipped off her feet.

“Quick,” Ismet yelled. The fish reared, exposing a long snout on an impossibly long body. “Get out! Hurry!”

Mrs Miller screamed, her finger still on the camera shutter-release button. Mr Miller waved at her with one arm, still grinning. A blank look on his face replaced his toothy smile when he was lifted out of the water, elevated by the snout between his legs. I flung the book at the fish, but I could not tell if I hit it at all. I threw the shoe and it bounced off its body. Mr Miller’s arms windmilled and he fell backwards. The water roiled, the long body of the fish snaked a curve that churned the water into froth and he went under.

The water closed over him, and he never surfaced again.

Peggy Miller screamed again, this time an awful, many-layered sound that stayed with me for years. We watched the water from our rocking boat, but there was nothing except a growing stillness as the water calmed itself. The red lifesaver floated, marking the spot he went under like a tombstone. I heard my heart pounding in my ears and later, its slowing brought a sense of shame. I had been afraid, but the fear had been selfish, a fear for me, of the boat being overturned and my body joining Mr Miller’s, and my fate tied to his with the creature in the water. I had reacted out of self-preservation; I had no recollection of any intention to save Mr Miller. I wanted only to stop the monster from getting close to me. My relief at being in the boat, unharmed, was tainted by the discomfort of guilt. I could have jumped in to save him from the fish, but I did not.

Something like rain fell. Rain that seemed to rise from the lake to water the sky.

Mrs Miller remained sedated for two days. My condolences and offer for assistance fell on drugged ears. She asked to move out of the Big House. The old furniture, she said, held death in them. She moved into one of the rooms above Hemingway’s and her daughter flew in to take her home.

ASP Sevaraja, who had a well-trained nose for gossip, as a sommelier’s for wine, told us that Mr Miller had had three wives before Peggy. The legend of Fourth Wife Lake gained a new life. Any man who had married four times and who dared brave the water would test the hatred of the lady of the lake; that, after Mr Miller, she had developed an appetite for male flesh. The Chinese princess had become a dragon fish.

“But no worries for you, Auyong. Not yet one-time married, eh?” ASP Sevaraja kidded.

“Everyone’s going to stop fishing for a few months. There is human flesh in the ecosystem. Are the navy divers going in?” I didn’t tell him that I doubted I could ever go back on the lake.

“No one is going in. We’ll try to dredge the bottom, but it might be too deep.” He showed me the pictures from Peggy Miller’s camera. Tim Miller had a look of astonishment on his face, as if some prankster had poured ice water on him. The serpentine fish was a silvery grey.

ASP Sevaraja said, “We sent the pictures to the wildlife department to identify the species. They think it’s an imported fish.”

“Are you going to try to catch it?” I asked.

“What for? Let it become famous like the Loch Ness Monster. We always like to be famous for stupid things, what? Anyway,” said ASP Sevaraja, “I have enough to do, catching two-legged monsters.”

I didn’t tell him the fish had a face I knew. It knew me, too. I saw it looking at me when I threw the book at it. It was the fish that Beevi had released during the floods two years ago. I didn’t tell Beevi, either. Somehow, an insensible balance told me that, to shield her from guilt, was to atone for mine. I assumed she would feel guilt, and my redemption was based on that assumption, but the balance worked. All I needed was to keep it hanging on that fulcrum for a year or two, maybe three, and it would fade from memory. It always did.