There are multiple documented cases of demonic possessions occurring at all-female schools, colleges, and workers’ dormitories in Malaysia throughout the ’70s and ’80s. Girls at an elite boarding school saw the angry ghost of a Thai monk squatting in their guttering, rubbing his belly, and suddenly the whole class of teenagers fell to “humming, screaming, ghost-dancing and praying”. Bright young women employed for repetitive precision work in the gleaming new microprocessor factories swore they witnessed the green ghost of a half-dead woman drip her way from the nearby lake, a nail puncturing her neck, grave-stench rolling off her in suffocating waves. The sterile air of the production line swirled with incense and rang with the chants of bomoh conducting exorcisms. Work recommenced.
M has always known that evil ghosts roamed the earth, only a foolish person would deny it. It was as clear as the spirits that lived in every thing. Not just the rocks and trees, though they housed deities, of course, any object contained its datuk. I catch her crooning to the god that lives in the oven, asking perhaps for it to stop burning everything on one side only. Little deaf god of second-hand catering equipment, oh unplug your oily ears and hear us. Why do people not come? When M’s peanut satay sauce is second to none? She turns her back to me and shields the wok when she dry-fries the red-skinned peanuts, like a child hiding her test paper from cheats. She will not tell me the recipe. Galangal root, birds-eye chillies? She refuses to say, closes her lips over her broken skyline teeth, sets me to de-veining king prawns on the other side of the kitchen. There is a time for preparing prawns and a way of frying peanuts. There is an order for eating, fish-rice-soup, and a newspaper clipping of a woman with high cheekbones and narrow eyes sellotaped to the inside of the spice cupboard. M taps the cupboard doors seven times and doesn’t know I’ve looked in there.
The evening ritual at the cafe always features the careful positioning of scissors. M takes the large kitchen scissors, shears really, with heavy blades capable of clipping through chicken joints. She places them on the table closest to the door with their mouth wide open, the sharp inner edges facing the street ready to behead any demon-spirit that dared to enter. She never tells me what form the evil might take. Will it be a green ghost up the road from Abney Park Cemetery, dripping unsanitary blood into the old ice cream tubs full of king prawns marinading in the fridge? Or maybe a fat old monk who’ll squat over our porch and send away all our customers so he can keep M’s delicious beef rendang for himself.
She is certain beyond any doubt that her failing business is nothing to do with her cooking and everything to do with a curse. Somewhere, a rival chef has hired a witch-doctor to confound her enterprise, and has made us invisible to punters, made us vulnerable to the cutting chi of the T-junction opposite, rendered all her octagonal mirror and yin-yang amulets useless. Sometimes when I look out into the street during one of our long evening lulls, I begin to feel it myself – the junction opposite me pawing the ground with its bullish head lowered, malevolence rushing towards the plate glass like a car with its brake lines cut.
Last thing before rolling down the shutters, M flips out the little plastic chute and draws a thick white line of salt across the front of the building. I’m not allowed to cross this line. I have to be out before the seal is in place. We get through more Saxa table salt than most, huge catering tubs every month.
Encyclopaedia Britannica says, “witch doctor – a healer or benevolent worker of magic in a non-literate society. The term originated in England in the C18th and is generally considered pejorative and anthropologically inaccurate.” Those schoolgirls and undergraduates and precision workers weren’t illiterate. Did they see what they saw? They placed their faith in the bomoh, who is neither a witch nor a doctor. And if my culture has lost its own witches, whose fault is that? Doctor Dee and the men of letters slowly transmuted magick into science and let the hedge-witches hang, the women who knew but could not write it down. To be unlettered is to be almost as bad as female; written words become a line of salt, uncrossable, dividing the truths that are known from the documented facts, putting us in thrall to a paper world. Is anything written real?
In my school, there was a girl, a pretty girl. She was the prettiest, don’t believe those others what they say. Long, long hair like a waterfall. Shiny cat eyes. She sang pop songs, and her cheeks were pale like tusks. I loved her like a best friend the first time I saw her, but I was always like this small and dark, and I begged my father for better teeth, but he couldn’t pay so I never expected she would talk to me ever. I was only half at the school, the daughter of a gardener and a cook does not get all the lessons, so I was not really real. I was not in white and green, the uniform there, I was in clothes the colour of corridors. But I was there on holidays when the girls disappeared, and I got my body back, and my voice. Good echoes in those corridors! Then I had my lessons from books. But other times, I helped my parents too. I could cook. I could take the black vein out of a prawn quicker than you by the time I was three, why you taking so long? Look at the mess and the face you make. I was ten when I cut the head of my first chicken. I like to see you try. No, I don’t mind, chickens are funny after, running everywhere! I know how to use every bit. Chinese, they eat even the feet! But I sold the feet to the bomoh. Not really a very good bomoh should kill his own chicken, but maybe also a good bomoh because he had plenty of work – needed lots of chicken feet! I don’t know.
I’m telling you! I was twelve, and I am killing a chicken in the kitchen yard. This is a very working place, not a pleasure garden, there is matting down for sorting rice and drying herbs, chilli and such, and there is a growing garden for vegetables, and there are stools, little low places to sit for picking over and plucking. I am killing a big chicken; mostly she is brown with a little white collar, she is a bully chicken and looks like the English speaking teacher who laughed at me this time, she said about my mouth making my accent bad, bully and bitch. I like to kill her. So I go chik-chik to bring her with little grains, then grab her and whack! With parang, big, big knife. Blood leaps up. I let her go to see her run around, most fun of the morning! She runs off towards the vegetables, and I run after, and then I see two feet in the mud. They are in shoes not made for mud. In the shoes, two nice feet and legs in regulation socks, and standing on the legs that prettiest girl with her hair all a waterfall over her uniform. Just standing there, watching the chicken bloody neck. And that chicken goes shaky all over and then falls at her feet, dead.
I expect her to be disgusted, as a nice young lady not liking to stand in mud and chicken blood. But she bends over and picks that chicken up and holds it out to me by the neck, all floppy and leaking, and she says, “what do you do with it now?” I couldn’t say, but she stayed to watch me sit in the yard chair and pluck. It’s a job with a knack, you know, plucking. Hard for the hands. Twisty wrist, and tear out the feathers, everything underneath pimply like some old English woman legs!! She was sitting there on the rattan stool, very old, very saggy like my bum now! I worried about her pleats. Little feathers stuck to the sticky blood-mud on her nice shoes. ‘This is plucking’ I said, because I’m all like an idiot near her. She asked to try, and I worried for her palms, very smooth, very pale. But I taught her how to rip, because she asked me. And when it was time to go into the kitchen, I showed her how to chop down and dismember. Yes, and the next bird to die was by her, because if Pretty wants it, you give it to Pretty.