Excerpts

From Bitter Melon

The torrid heat prowled our part of town like a wild beast. The postman pressed our bell furiously again and again. Father, who was watering the tropical plants on the balcony with a hose, gave no more than an apathetic glance in response to the continual ringing. Mother, her face streaked with tears, stayed in the kitchen. The chopping motions she made with her hands had acquired a mechanical rhythm, which allowed her some peace of mind. A portion of the chopped onions, whose juice was making her cry, had gone into the boiling soup to nourish us, but most of them had fallen under the cooker and the rooster hopped around between mother’s legs, pecking at them and growing fatter by the day.

I was not surprised that my parents did not understand my fear of strangers and thus turned a deaf ear to the doorbell. I warned them that the postman’s anger would soon seep through the door. Then I shut my laptop and crossed the room, stepping over the bottles strewn all over the floor, so that I could have a look at the postman through the peephole. But all I could see was the winding, dimly lit corridor outside. I wondered if it was all just my foolish imagination, as they reckoned. The postman’s hurrying footsteps had faded into the distance. I strained my ears in an attempt to make out the slight turbulence the sounds had left in the air, but like everything that came and went in our lives, it slipped away from me.

The only thing I could be sure of was the package with the name “K” written on it. On the balcony, my father gave something close to a roar of rage; the kitchen knife fell heavily to the floor as my mother was reduced to uncontrollable sobs; and the rooster opened its wings in the confined space of the kitchen and uttered a shrill crow that could have meant anything. “It is unwise to judge by appearances,” I silently mouthed the words that Aphasia had written to me, as I tore the layers from the package. Behind me, I could feel my parents creeping closer until we all could finally see what lay tucked deep inside—a bitter melon of a really sinister shape. A thick, poisonous green substance spewed out of it and created clusters of fruit warts on the surface of the skin so densely packed that they looked like they might burst open at any moment.

I heard a voice, submerged in rage, that was almost inaudible. My parents swallowed pills at regular intervals, and they believed that K had disappeared from our lives forever. Yet every evening, as the fierce heat eased slightly, I could hear K’s voice from a nearby construction site, coming and going like a tiny, bright green firefly hovering around us.

“They told us K had gradually evaporated one boiling hot afternoon, like the girls who used to gather around the construction site...”

The girls had started to appear inside the corrugated iron fence that hid the site from view in springtime. They were bareheaded and silent, and came empty-handed. No one knew how they had avoided the security guards’ patrols and gotten inside. At some point, the construction workers, who had just finished pouring concrete, simply looked up and saw the girls quietly dispersing, or lying spread-eagle on the rippling concrete surface, or clutching bulky water pipes, or standing on one leg like cranes at the water’s edge beside steel posts sunk deep into the ground. Their eyes, fringed with long lashes, were shut. In their silence, they might have been fast asleep or deep in thought. It was hard to make out their features. TV viewers had to wait for the camera operator’s lens to zoom in to see the gradually expanding tattoos of bitter melons, complete with green warty growths that twitched in a most lifelike way on their delicate white arms.

No one had seen a tattoo of such lurid green before...

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From Snow and Shadow

Before Shadow’s arrival, Snow often stood alone at the palace’s cave-like windows, gazing out at the road that snaked away towards the forest.

The forest in this country was a cruel place, to which dwarves (who were regarded as demons) were banished. The walls of their mud-built homes, which were hidden among the trees, were full of cracks, and at night the wind howled mercilessly through them into the dwarves’ dark eardrums, as they dreamed dreams that made them tremble with fear. It was a bitterly cold place, inhabited by numerous wild beasts. When Snow patrolled it, she often saw the dismembered carcasses of animals under the trees or beside the path. Snow would squat down, and carefully examine the bones and energy channels amid the bloody flesh. The blood would spread slowly over the snowy ground, then quickly congeal into a bright red patch.

Dwarves armed with hunting weapons sometimes lurked behind tussocks, watching the girl. In snowstorms, they screwed up their eyes into slits and seemed unaware of the passing of time...