From Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong, translated by Natascha Bruce. Republished by permission of Granta Books.
Read in Chinese here.
It was probably the mewling of a cat that woke the warden. Then again, it might have been the wind. The wind blew through the doors and windows along the verandah, delivering anxious noises from the real world into the women’s dreams. The warden had dreamt that a woman came up to her bed. The woman’s face was in shadow, her features hazy.
‘They’ve given you a place to stay for a while, that’s all,’ she said. ‘But this isn’t even a room. It’s just the lights are off, and the darkness is giving you the wrong impression.’
The warden tried to see the woman’s face but could make out only a pitch-black strip of shadow, perched on the end of the bed. She stared for a while, unafraid, until a cold wind gusted in, making her shiver, and the woman disappeared into it. Then she heard the wails of the cats beneath the window and owls hooting in the mountains. Reality crowded back in, noisy and fragmented, pressing from all directions. Long shadows skimmed the walls and pallid moonlight fell across the floor. It was a room like a box with a ceiling like a lid, all sealed up. The door knocked in its frame and the warden sat up, intending to secure it. She glanced down the row of beds, where the women lay fast asleep, like a line of white cocoons. Only Aminah’s bed was empty, the sheet pushed aside, nightclothes crumpled on the floor. The warden started in alarm.
She could have stayed in bed, but instead she ran outside to look for Aminah. The verandah was cool and the lamps were dim. She groped around for her slippers and then hurried through the dark shadows of the building and the banana trees, heading towards the front gate. In the security hut, the guard was slumped in a canvas chair with his eyes closed. The warden rapped her knuckles against the counter and he woke up, peering blearily through the glass.
‘Aminah’s run off, I don’t know where to,’ said the warden. ‘What if she’s got out, or something’s happened to her?’
‘She won’t have got very far, not at this time of night,’ said the guard. He adjusted his haji cap, clearly reluctant to move.
The warden understood. She really did. If Aminah was in her usual state, any devout Muslim would be ashamed to lay eyes on her. Ever since her stay at the rehabilitation centre had been extended, Aminah had been acting out. The teachers kept trying to persuade her that it wasn’t worth it. ‘It’s all been decided, there’s nothing you can do about it now. You have to face reality, Aminah.’
Aminah, they said, had gone mad. She had torn off her dress, exposing herself. She refused to cover her head or study the Quran – not that she’d ever read it in the first place. One evening, she climbed into a well. According to the aunty who did the cooking, this was when the demon got in and sent her well and truly crazy. After sunset, the wilderness spirits get restless, especially in areas so close to forests. They creep out with the fog, in search of vulnerable prey.
The warden did not set much store by folk superstitions. Anytime a ghost story was playing on television, she’d watch until the most suspenseful part, then get up and start pacing around, making a show of her indifference; the Quran was more powerful than any sorcerer. But now, in the pre-dawn gloom, with the ghostly murmur of the wind brushing through the trees, the darkest, most nonsensical of those ideas rose from the undergrowth, along with the mist and the damp. A chill rolled out in waves, making her hair stand on end. There was a heavy scent of mangoes, pungent as the breath of an evil spirit. She pulled her shawl across the icy tip of her nose.
The grass had grown tall during the rainy season. Everything was black. She couldn’t see clearly but knew where to find the well: beneath the mango tree, covered in weeds. No one used it anymore. It was centuries old; ancient forest dwellers had probably relied on it for water. It had existed long before the rehabilitation centre. The land had been used as a military training ground for a while, then transferred to the religious authorities. They had built a garden with a boundary fence that ran along the edge of the forest, capturing the well inside.
Barbed wire coiled along the top of the chain-link fence. As the warden walked, she kept an eye out for holes. It’s not possible, she thought. There’s no way she could jump this. There weren’t any gaps and all the gates were locked. Aminah had to be in there somewhere.
Cats chased one another about the garden. They came into season, mated, gave birth to too many kittens. The cats could leave, but not the people. The people had to wait. Perhaps for three months, perhaps for one hundred and eighty days. Their arrival and departure dates were written in their files, the same way birth and death dates are noted down in Allah’s Book of Decrees. And no matter who they were, none of them would stay as long as the warden. This was her home now; she could navigate the garden with her eyes closed. The wind roared behind the mountain and the sound crashed in like a breaking wave, but even that couldn’t mask the shrieking of the cats. The kitchen was dark. The kitchen workers were still asleep. There was no sign of Aminah. She seemed to have vanished into the air.
The mosque started broadcasting the dawn azan, its solemn tones carving through the wind, and the warden went back inside to pray. One by one, the women rose from their beds and knelt on their prayer mats, facing Mecca, foreheads on the floor.
Do not fall by the wayside, the warden recited to herself. There is no god but Allah.
Another endless day, full of never-ending responsibilities. The trials would never be over, for there was no end, not until the end of this worldly life. She looked up at the window. The moon illuminated a cobweb over the glass. She heard the door creak, then open.
Aminah had returned. Her figure, in the gloom, walked the length of the dormitory, in front of the lined-up prayer mats. Every pair of eyes saw the soles of her feet, and the trail of mud and grass in their wake.
She passed by the praying warden, who lost track of her prayers. Aminah’s fingers appeared frail in the moonlight, as if about to melt away. There was not a thread of clothing on her skeletal frame.
The women had stopped praying and were holding their breath, waiting for this naked, sleepwalking body to pass. They did not turn to watch her but listened as she moved about behind them. She climbed into bed. A thin sound arose from it; a gentle murmur, like the fizz of a carbonated drink, quickly absorbed into the long cry of the mosque.
The warden was shaken. Her internal recitations cut off. The women went back to their beds, but she stayed on her mat, trying to collect those fallen sentences, unsure where to direct her forehead. Aminah’s damp tracks glistened on the floorboards. They were not quite fully formed footprints. Moonlight came in at a slant as the moon dropped behind the mountains. The majesty of the azan drowned out the echo of the wind in the valley and the cats’ grating wails. It reverberated around the dome of the sky. She could no longer hear the crickets. No longer hear Aminah, or any other sound.
In the beginning, they had known only a few basic facts about Aminah. Born in 1975 in Baling New Village, Kedah. Paternal grandfather, Abdullah Ang; paternal grandmother, Xu Xiao Ying. Father, Hamza Abdullah; mother, Gao Mei Mei. Occupation and whereabouts of parents unknown. Neither appeared for the court proceedings. Cohabited with a non-Muslim male in Cheras district, Kuala Lumpur, at No. 35, Road 7/4A, Indah Gardens. Employed as, variously, a waitress, bar girl and hairdresser’s assistant. In 1993, applied at the Syariah Court to leave Islam. On 20 August 1997, the Syariah Court denied her request and ruled her still a member of the Islamic faith.
They had read her file aloud, giving voice to these details, but the voice had skittered across their brains; the moment the folder was shut, they forgot most of what they’d heard. And after that forgetting, they knew hardly anything about her at all. They remembered that she was from a Muslim family, had conducted herself in an immoral manner, had attempted apostasy.
Now, several months later, they knew a few other things. These were not written in the file. Aminah was wild and unruly. Aminah hated Islam. When Aminah sleepwalked, she could pick a lock with a piece of wire. What nobody knew was when this farce would be over.
‘What else can we do?’ asked one teacher. ‘How do we get through to her?’
‘I give up,’ said the warden. ‘Even hiding the key doesn’t work. Can’t we send her away? She should be in an asylum.’
Along the edge of the table, a wave of shaking heads. A few letters were passed around. A stack of documents shifted back and forth between coffee cups. All as quietly as possible. Someone repeated the warning that had come down the telephone line: ‘We can’t send her away. Think about what they’ll say. They’ll say we did this to her. That we sent her mad.’
‘She’s not mad, she just sleepwalks,’ insisted another teacher. ‘Sleepwalking is not the problem here.’
‘Well, then what is the problem? And what are we going to do about it?’ The speaker’s lips pursed over the rim of a coffee cup, pained and deadly serious. ‘Because whatever we’re doing at the moment, it’s clearly not enough.’ The table rocked slightly, as a finger knocked down to emphasise the last three words. ‘We need to ask ourselves some serious questions.’
And so, for the next two hours, they went around repeating to one another those same phrases they had used a hundred times before: ‘There is no hiding from God.’ ‘We will bring Aminah back to the path of righteousness.’ ‘We will do our utmost to care for Aminah.’ ‘We will love and care for them all.’ ‘In this way, they will come to know Allah.’
‘This is His test for us,’ said one.
They all agreed, and started to eat biscuits. Sparrows hopped about pecking at their crumbs. The garden scenery was as familiar as always, seemingly impervious to the passage of time. Sunlight poured down and the shrubs quietly sprouted.
There were no walls around the dining hall and the light flooded in from all sides, blinding the teacher Hamid, forcing him to squeeze his eyes shut, as though he had been pulled underwater in the sea.
‘We can’t know everything,’ he said. ‘We’re not God.’
‘It’s true,’ someone agreed. ‘We’re not.’
So far, Aminah had only ever been naked while sleepwalking. When she was awake, she was fully dressed, sometimes weeping quietly to herself, other times talking softly. But when she sleepwalked, she stripped off her clothes and wandered around the garden. She was surrounded by fencing and barbed wire all the way to the sky. They were not worried that she would escape, they were worried that they might see her.
Beyond the fence was forest and wilderness. There was one lonely road, which had split off from the North–South Expressway on the west coast and ran deep into the peninsula’s interior. Along it, electricity pylons towered over the vegetation, like used-up yarn shuttles dragging their last threads across the horizon. Evening mists settled quickly and dark clouds blew in on the wind. In the final waves of daylight, the horizon was as chimerical as fog, as far-off islands.
This was how it had looked from the car, when Aminah first arrived. She had stared and stared, until the electricity cables disappeared, and the trees, and the distant mountain range, all swallowed by the thick black fog.
When she entered the building, her limbs went soft and she could barely stand. Her insides felt like stones, piled to the top of her neck, and her legs were sacks of rocks that dragged along the floor. During the day, she choked on the unfamiliar food. At night, she lay in bed but could not sleep. They presented her with a white prayer dress and she hurled it onto the floor, then spat on it and told them all to go to hell. She yelled insults at anyone who happened to pass by. A little later, she allowed the dress to be placed at the end of her bed. After they gave up trying to convince her to put it on, she lay around sulking, muttering to herself in a language no one else could understand. She treated them as if they were invisible.
‘Zombies,’ she said. ‘Pigs.’
When she thought of the lovers who had abandoned her, of the relationships she could never make official, of that miscarried child, a crack spread through her body. It rose from between her knees and sliced her in two. It buzzed. Deep inside her forehead something shattered, and the noise sealed off her ears.
She buried her head in her pillow, feeling the cotton stuffing press back against her nose. My name is Hong Bee Lan, she told it, her voice sinking into the folds. They would say: That claim is no longer valid, you cannot be Hong Bee Lan. It had been read aloud in court, clear as day. No right of appeal. It was settled. No more changes.
Eventually, her hair grew long enough to hide behind. Her hair felt like all she had.
When Aminah had first arrived, she had still been willing to talk. Every so often, she responded angrily to questions, or pleaded tearfully with the warden, or erupted into broken Malay, trying desperately to explain herself. In other ways, she was just like everyone else, traipsing edgily in and out of the classroom. She too sought relief from the red-hot glare of the sun and the monotony of the dormitory, and followed the others as they shifted location through the day. Like them, she hated studying and never set foot in the library. No one did.
They had been judged guilty of licentiousness, deviant ideology, gender confusion, apostasy, and forced into studenthood; none of them felt compelled to enter the library and thumb through tomes expounding on righteousness.
‘If Muslim blood flows through a person’s veins, they will be Muslim until the day they die.’
The warden said so. Hamid said so. Inside the chain-link fence, every teacher said so.
‘Aminah binti Hamza! All I’m asking is that you put your trust in God, is it really so difficult?’
Hamid was bewildered. The warden had asked her the same question, in the same tone. Inside the chain-link fence, the same question passed from one mouth to another.
It was a boiling afternoon, the breeze as indolent as a cow. The air beneath the fan pasted itself to the skin.
Hamid was drenched in sweat, a torrent of words spilling out of him as he laboured to make his point.
‘The Quran is perfection! Not a single word too much, nor a single word too little, because it was written not by mortal beings, but by All-Powerful God.’
Aminah was distracted. She was so hot that her whole body itched. She was not wearing a headscarf. Her tangled hair hung down over her shoulders, and her exposed neck was covered in scratch marks. A few Orang Asli, who had also tried and failed to shed their religion, sat in the chairs beside her, heads lolling as they dozed off.
‘Where is your scarf?’ asked Hamid, keeping his tone cordial.
Aminah did not answer. She collapsed across the table, inert as mud, her matted hair like weeds.
Hamid recalled his colleagues talking about Aminah’s volcanic explosions. He weighed his words carefully before speaking.
‘If your boyfriend truly loved you, he would not have abandoned you. He isn’t coming back, you know.’
Aminah said nothing.
‘And if your mother truly loved you, she would not have forsaken you. I don’t understand – if they don’t love you, why are you so desperate to go back? We love you more than they ever did. Why won’t you let us in?’
Under the eaves, sparrows darted and chirped. Out in the garden, all the living creatures were stirring. Palm tree shadows flickered back and forth, back and forth, creating a shifting patchwork of light and dark.
At first, Hamid thought the wind was ruffling Aminah’s hair. Then he realised she was trembling. She was hiding behind her hair, huffing and hissing to herself. Whatever she had concealed there, it was only a matter of time before it exploded. Her Malay came out in staccato bursts, but the meaning was perfectly clear.
‘Why not talk to my father? That fucking pig, never gave me a sen. You! are! all! Malay! pigs! You’re Satan! You get a toothache, you love Allah, I don’t care – it’s your business, not mine. Why do you care so much about other people’s hemlines?’
Hamid could hardly believe his ears. Satan. He shifted from foot to foot, trying to think how to convince her.
‘You can’t say things like this. Don’t hate God because you’re angry at your father. Allah has plans for your father, just as he has plans for you. Promiscuity is wrong. Going round with unbelievers is wrong. It will not make you happy, it will simply degrade you. If you cannot try to please Allah, your life will be utterly without meaning.’
Aminah lifted her chin and stared at him through the black hair shielding her face. Her mouth drooped. She put her hands over her ears.
He avoided her eyes, letting his gaze travel down to her collarbones, where he could make out those faint, mysterious scratches.
‘We will find our true reward in the afterlife, where there will be splendour even greater than that which we see before us …’
She would not accept it. This saddened him. He thought, This girl is unworthy of the name Aminah. ‘Aminah’, a loyal heart. The bearer of this name should love and serve our God.
But still he felt compelled to save this lost Aminah, to rescue her from the abyss.
Aminah gave up hope. No one came. The outside world felt far away and she no longer raged or cried. After the first one hundred and fifty days had passed, the others brought in with her went silent too, leaving only the twittering of birds, high in the sky, and the rustle of wind through the trees. Ants climbed blades of grass, gnawing the edges as they went.
The court order for an extension of her sentence came. Another one hundred and eighty days. It wouldn’t have happened if you had behaved.
The white cloth was bright against the warden’s hands. It had been washed. It looked pristine. Obediently, Aminah pulled it over her head, covering herself right down to her feet. It was too big. The part covering her face shook with her breath. It felt like another layer of skin. This is where she would live from now on: she would wake up inside it, she would die inside it. Until Day 180. But after Day 180 there would be another one hundred and eighty days.
A black cave concealed each woman’s face, and each woman dragged a long shadow behind her. Aminah dragged a long shadow too. Beneath her chin, on her chest, at night, it was as if there were someone lying between her and the women either side. A grey person, lying between the beds, with a voice that leapt from their vacant body onto her mattress.
Was it all an illusion? An illusion, severed from the months, the years, the past. You need a fresh start. The hammer’s come down now, and it won’t come down again. Why not accept that you’re Aminah? What good is your old identity to you now? What good ever came of your past anyway?
Their white gowns rustled against their bodies. They spread out their mats, knelt down, and in a few moments their foreheads were touching the floor.
After evening prayers, Hamid felt revitalised. He sat on the verandah sipping coffee, scooping out sugar from the bottom of his cup with a teaspoon. The clouds were low, almost touching the roof. He stared dreamily at the jade-green vine that curled around the verandah railing, entranced by the glossy sheen of its leaves. The long line of daffodils behind had contracted leaf mould and the flowers were slowly withering, despite the gardener’s best efforts. Hamid felt sorry for them, but also felt that the world was progressing as it should. Allah’s decree extends to every tiny detail. Allah the All-Merciful manifests His mercy in all things under Heaven. All living things have their place.
Hamid turned on the verandah light and started reading through the students’ homework.
He did not remember the background of every student. He knew that one young man had returned from Indonesia and would expound at the slightest opportunity: ‘Read the book of Siti Hajar! Save yourself from eternal damnation!’ A few others were instructors from religious institutions, sent to the centre to correct their completely misguided interpretations of the Quran. Hamid did not understand how people could be so stupid.
An ignorant heart is incapable of discerning truth, he thought. That was the tragedy of it.
The more he read, the more he sighed. Not a single story was new; history just kept on repeating itself. One diary read: The universe is Allah’s dream. Dream? Siti received enlightenment from a dream. In this world of illusion nothing is real other than ‘me’, for the illusion is born from ‘me’, and therefore this ‘me’ is Allah.
It was absurd. It was astonishing that anyone was convinced by these obvious fabrications.
It continued: Since everything is an illusion, what evidence is there that Paradise is real?
They didn’t believe in anything. Not in God, nor in honouring their obligations. Not even Paradise.
Hamid wrote, One can see that a person without faith is noticeably more frail than a person of faith, for they have to live their lives thinking that Paradise is an illusion.
Then, feeling that wasn’t quite right, he crossed it out and corrected it: Paradise is the place to which the souls of all true believers will return.
The moon rose in the sky, then darkened.
A shadow fell across the page. Hamid looked up and saw Aminah. He was so shocked he almost knocked over his coffee.
Aminah’s eyes were wide open but unfocused. It was immediately clear that she was asleep. She was sleepwalking but had drawn to a halt, as though sensing an obstacle ahead. She was not wearing any clothes and stood there before Hamid, moving neither forwards nor backwards, utterly exposed.
Oh Allah! Internally, he called on God for assistance.
He held his breath as he looked at her, bewildered by her body. All over her skin, on her breasts, her chest, her abdomen, were finely etched scars, like the veins in a leaf. The evening rose up and closed around them, perching on the verandah railings. For a long, long time, the dusk was the whole sky, calm and windless.
Hamid’s heart raced. The scars made him pity Aminah. He wanted to reach out and touch them.
The enemy name flitted through his mind, sharp as a warning whistle. Just in time, he moved his gaze to the Quran on the table. Don’t you know what she’s dreaming about? Some confused thought seemed about to become clear, but then vanished back into nothing, like a wisp of smoke. Oh Allah, he implored again. His chest felt tight. He reached for the Quran but it weighed too heavily in his hands, and fell to his feet with a bang.
Hamid hurried along the path to the women’s dormitory, damp, black branches scratching at the sky overhead, his unease like a scalding-hot coin against his forehead. I would never call an unbeliever ‘Satan’. Satan is Satan. An unbeliever is an unbeliever, they are not the same thing. But they get confused, he thought. The internal debate carried on: I have not failed, it’s just Aminah’s crazy talk, it’s unsettling me. As Allah speaks through us, so Satan is always lying in wait.
This comforted him; he had preserved his Muslim dignity. Wicked thoughts are the same as wicked deeds, but then again, what counted as a thought? What if it was here one second, gone the next, left no trace? I have not thought anything, seeing as I was not in earnest. It was a moment of weakness, that’s all. We must all be vigilant about nudity. One should not be naked aside from washing, visiting the toilet or lying with one’s wife. A man should not feel arousal for any naked body other than his wife’s. Oh Allah, have mercy. If my mind must waver, let me be judged by my actions. I have controlled myself, prevailed over desire, and for that let us rejoice.
The heart is a battleground.
An evening wind blew through, sending dew raining from the leaves. Drops slid into his collar, cold against his neck. He felt calmer now. He saw the warden and collected himself, and briefly explained the situation. The two of them hurried back to the teachers’ dormitory but Aminah had gone, leaving only a trail of muddy footprints along the verandah.
‘You see,’ said the warden, ‘the girl is ruined. It’s her nature, there’s no changing it.’
Hamid stooped to pick up an exercise book that had blown away on the wind, into a dip at the bottom of the steps.
‘There is only one nature that Allah has instilled into mankind,’ he said. ‘And that is to rely on Allah.’
The warden made no other comment and left soon after, muttering to herself. The air was clammy and the wind crashed about, rattling the exercise books on the table. Alone again, Hamid sat in a rattan chair, staring blankly at the page he’d been writing on before, covered in his black crossings-out and annotations. His mind was in turmoil. He wasn’t sure what to think. Perhaps Aminah hadn’t really appeared at all; perhaps he’d just nodded off and dreamt that she had.
The foil-stamped lettering of the Quran glimmered faintly in the dull light.
In his youth, during trysts with his girlfriend, Hamid had made sure the Quran was carefully stowed away in a drawer. He recalled one long-ago evening, just before he went abroad for religious training, his last chance to indulge. They had said goodbye, the shadow of the curtains swaying across their naked bodies as they embraced, teeth sinking into one another’s skin, the marks deep but fleeting. And now that labyrinth of emotion soared all the way along those ten, interminable years and landed on the table, flipping the strewn books. The lamp rocked in the breeze.
He opened the Quran, suppressing those old hurts and reminiscences, and started to pray.
The pitch-black sky seemed to possess a purity worthy of protection. And, much like looking for someone across the vast passage of time, the realisation filled him with anguish. Yes, that was what he had to defend. That. In this worldly life, a pure heart is the most precious possession of all. Verily, Allah loves those who are pious.
How do things decompose, buried underground? The mud was acidic and stung the skin of unaccustomed city folk. When they rinsed it off, they found little red spots, which itched briefly and then disappeared. They were young and so they healed quickly; if they had been older … well, with older bodies death is always lingering overhead, gearing up for its performance.
Heavy rains came and flowers wilted, although new buds continued to sprout defiantly from the branches. The earth was sodden. In the distance, a thick mist wound around the mountains. The wet season. Spores floated in on the wind and rapidly reproduced, covering logs and tree trunks in layer upon layer of fungus. A dead bird lay stiffly in the undergrowth, legs to the sky. Frogs ran away and cicadas screeched. Dead leaves industriously grew white spots, their rot bestowing blackness upon the soil.
New shoots surfaced through the mud.
In the vegetable garden on the mountain side of the compound, the women pulled up weeds that covered the ground like a net. Monitor lizards skulked along the periphery fence, provoking screams of horror. Even so, there were happy moments. If they cast aside thoughts of the restrictions and regulations, if they managed not to take them to heart, then these so-called licentious women, women whose moral conduct had been found so wanting, were perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. When the guards relaxed their watch, the women’s shouts and raucous laughter echoed through the valley, mixing with the cries of birds and the wave-like hiss of the leaves, carrying to the other side of the dormitory blocks and dissipating into the wind.
The women loosened the soil and earthworms frantically burrowed deeper in, away from their shovels. Hamid preached.
‘If all you do is read the Quran, you’ll never understand. We have to experience it for ourselves. Only those of us who have planted seeds with our very own hands can comprehend: mankind is weak, but Allah is Almighty. It has been this way since antiquity. Mankind will gain nothing from going against the Will of Allah.’
The sun came up over the men’s dormitory, causing the single-storey building to cast a long shadow across the men’s side of the garden. The men were weeding, spreading manure, adding a layer of soil, sheets of newspaper, another layer of manure, another of soil. Layer upon layer upon layer.
The Indonesian student seemed to have forgotten Siti Hajar. He had been resisting all instruction, but now appeared engrossed in his weeding. Hamid took this as a sign that his recitations had done some good.
On the mountain-facing side, the women planted bits of everything – melons, beans, vegetables. Behind the dormitory, the men planted bananas, chilli peppers and taro. Hamid knelt down to pat earth around the base of a sapling, thinking of his grandmother’s funeral.
‘Planting seeds is called “tanam”, the same word as for burying people,’ he told the students. ‘Planted seeds will sprout and blossom. After a person has died, their soul remains. To know where you will end up after death, you need only to reflect on your one, brief life, and ask yourself if your deeds and conduct have been pleasing to Allah.’
All living things die and are reborn, he thought to himself, his frustration mounting. In a matter of weeks, we will harvest this garden. Is that when they will receive new life? Will they be saved? He continued to lecture, just as conscientiously as always, until the end of the session. The men exchanged glances among themselves, making furtive jokes or pulling faces, their hands caked in mud. No one was listening to Hamid. He wanted to yell but restrained himself. Instead, he looked around at all those lost men, ones who had yet to be saved, and he pitied them. No matter that they had clearly indicated their disdain for his efforts to rescue them, still he would treat them with kindness.
One of the men suddenly shouted the name.
Hamid froze. Noticing that the man’s eyes were fixed on a point behind him, he turned, but all he saw were low-slung sunbeams, the shadows playing in front of the dormitory, the deserted verandah. Nothing out of the ordinary. The swaying outlines of the trees, sparrows riding the wind, fat leaves flapping beneath them. But, as he surveyed the area, he realised that he wanted her to be there. He was scanning this complex world for Aminah, poor, pitiful Aminah, with her poor, scarred body. Somewhere in that familiar scenery, deep in the undergrowth, hibernated a creature both familiar and extraordinary. It was in the shadows, sleeping endlessly beneath the wide-open sky. For a moment, the silence was complete and all-encompassing.
He felt that Allah’s grace and mercy were truly present, descended upon all things and all living creatures, and that holiness and corruption were but a hair’s breadth apart. He wished there was no guilt. The thought seemed to arrive out of nowhere, a longing that rose like water in his chest, so that he almost overflowed.
He wanted to speak but there was no one to talk to. Nowhere to go and say the things he wanted to say. Instead, he silently turned to face the lost men, squatting in the dirt of the vegetable plot. And there they were, of all ages, from all backgrounds, each one scouring their surroundings for the legendary naked Aminah.
The tales grew more fantastical with each retelling. In the kitchen, the cleaning lady and a huddle of students whispered about the sleepwalker’s supernatural ability to free herself from constraints. It was a gripping thought, at once tense and exciting, although they dropped it after a few sentences, fearful of summoning evil spirits. But this underlying dread seemed only to propel those sentences further and faster, sparking an ever greater desire to listen and fabricate. At the staff and teacher’s meeting, they considered the potential damage of this belief. They could not completely disregard it, because in Malay folk tradition the roots of this kind of superstition ran deep. Neither could they hope to eradicate it, when it was so embedded in people’s minds; superstition was something they clung to for reassurance. And so they held a meeting to discuss it, and the meeting ran on and off for an entire week without nearing any conclusion. They searched the Quran for guidance, for a clarifying verse, but opinions differed widely. The debate continued until their shared faith and unity seemed to teeter on the brink of collapse. To avoid misunderstandings, they agreed to pause proceedings until the principal returned from holiday. Hamid, that promising young teacher, the one they had always looked to for solutions, felt his interest waning, and slipped wordlessly away.
Aminah was always back by morning. One day, she returned seeming exhausted, as though she’d been walking for miles, and quickly fell asleep. Weeks passed without any further escapades and the warden dared hope that the farce might be over, just like that.
For several nights in a row, the warden woke in the early hours of the morning. Unable to fall asleep again, she would listen to the soft fizzing of rain on the roof. It pattered onto leaves and soaked the window panes. Everything felt muted. One such night, still bleary, she noticed a cluster of dark shadows hovering around Aminah’s bed. Instantly alert, she tiptoed over and found three sisters from one of the northern provinces, performing an exorcism. They sat cross-legged around the bed, spat into their palms, and began chanting under their breath, the chant interspersed with violent exhalations. After a while they brought their palms to their mouths again, exhaled sharply, and then returned to their recitations.
The warden reprimanded them, keeping her voice low and restrained. She tried her hardest to seem reasonable, even kindly, but the women paid no attention. And so the warden felt her temper rise, forcing its way from her chest and emerging as a sharp, hard voice.
Even that voice was not enough to stop them. They had been transported to another world entirely: their eyes were open but they did not see. They kept repeating the same actions, over and over again, as though possessed themselves – a circle in the air, a wave, hands back to mouth, spit, chant, exhale, arms out again, a circle in the air.
The warden gasped in horror. The thought flashed into her mind: They are all possessed. She looked around the dormitory and saw that several beds were empty. Not only those belonging to the three sisters, but others too. There were bed sheets tangled on the floor. She stepped back, despairing and terrified, and quietly fled the room.
Oh Allah, protect us.
She fled into the rainy night, where all she could see was a tearful sky and tearful trees. The treeline penetrated the deepest part of the darkness, where cricket-chirps and owl-hoots blended into one another, like garbled fragments emerging from a cave. She hurried along the damp path, clutching an umbrella, feeling the icy moisture on her toes. Water ran off the umbrella onto her back and shoulders. She passed through the circles of light beneath the lamps, speeding up in the shadows, heading towards the security hut at the entrance.
She rapped the counter with her knuckles.
The guard was sitting idly behind the glass, just as always.
‘Gone,’ she said. ‘Run away.’
‘What?’ replied the guard.
‘I don’t know! I don’t know what to do,’ she said, stumbling over the words. ‘They’re all possessed …’
The guard did not react as she had expected. He didn’t even yawn, simply stared at her blankly. She stepped back, her whole body shaking. The guard’s eyes were heavy. His expression was unsettling, although she couldn’t say why. The small circular speaker-holes drilled into the glass blurred his mouth and nose.
She returned to the path. A cat shrieked in the courtyard. Every so often, she heard the thud of fruit against a dry roof. A quick bump and then gone. Dead leaves fell as silently as passing time. It was an exceptionally black night, the moon as slim as a fingernail clipping. She sat on the wooden staircase outside the dormitory, her back to the line of narrow doors along the verandah. She knew the sounds coming from behind them, knew they were from the women who had stayed inside, who were still lying in their beds, sleep-talking and grinding their teeth. That’s how it was all night long; enough to give you goose pimples if you woke up to hear it. She did not want to hear it anymore. In front of the steps, wind whipped up the fallen leaves, blowing them crisply across the concrete.
She closed her eyes.
Time passed, and she opened them again.
Her eyelids were so dry that she could almost hear them blink. Her hand still gripped the umbrella, and the umbrella was bone-dry. There was no rain on the concrete. A chill swept from the top of her head all the way to her toes. She wanted to stand but her legs and bottom were too numb to move, as though she’d been leaning against the railing for hours, not just a minute or so. Her shoulders ached and her neck was stiff. She touched her headscarf – one of those soft, shiny ones. She had never worn one before.
Aminah, she thought. Sleepwalking Aminah. It was as though something came and sucked all the clothes off Aminah’s body, peeling them off and dumping them on the dormitory floor.
The wind blew in from who knows where. The sky was full of stars about to fall. She shivered with cold but resolved to withstand it, tried not to think about it – in fact, she couldn’t have done anything even if she’d wanted; she had to wait for the numbness to pass.
The crescent moon tilted, gradually sinking behind the mountains. She watched, conscious that this very moment was the darkest, the one just before the sun rose.