Bloody Fabulous: Stories of Fantasy and Fashion

Page 16


Wei Yi was trying to free the dogs. She stood by the gate, holding it open and gesturing with one hand at the great outdoors.
“Go! Blackie, Guinness, Ah Hei, Si Hitam, Jackie, Bobby! Go, go!”
The dogs didn’t seem that interested in the great outdoors. Ah Hei took a couple of tentative steps towards the gate, looked back at Wei Yi, changed her mind and sat down again.
“Jackie and Bobby?” said Vivian.
Wei Yi shot her a glare. “I ran out of ideas.” The so what? was unspoken, but it didn’t need to be said.
“Why these stupid dogs don’t want to go,” Wei Yi muttered. “When you open the gate to drive in or out, they go running everywhere. When you want them to chau, they don’t want.”
“They can tell you won’t let them back in again,” said Vivian.
She remembered when Wei Yi had been cute—as a little girl, with those pure single-lidded eyes and the doll-like lacquered bowl of hair. When had she turned into this creature? Hair at sevens and eights, the uneven fringe falling into malevolent eyes. Inappropriately tight Bermuda shorts worn below an unflatteringly loose plaid shirt.
At seven Wei Yi had been a being perfect in herself. At seventeen there was nothing that wasn’t wrong about the way she moved in the world.
Vivian had been planning to tell her sister off, but the memory of that lovely child softened her voice. “Why you don’t want the dogs anymore?”
“I want Nai Nai to win.” Wei Yi slammed the gate shut.
“What, by having nice clothes when she’s passed away?” said Vivian. “Winning or losing, doesn’t matter for Nai Nai anymore. What does it matter if she wears a polo shirt in the afterlife?”
Wei Yi’s face crumpled. She clutched her fists in agony. The words broke from her in a roar.
“You’re so stupid! You don’t know anything!” She kicked the gate to relieve her feelings. “Nai Nai’s brain works more than yours and she’s dead! Do you even belong to this family?”
This was why Vivian had left. Magic lent itself to temperament.
“Maybe not,” said Vivian.
When Vivian was angry she did it with the same single-minded energy she did everything else. This was why she decided to go wedding dress shopping in the week of her grandmother’s funeral.
There were numerous practical justifications, actually. She went through them in her head as she drove past bridal studios where faceless mannequins struck poses in clouds of tulle.
“Cheaper to get it here than overseas. Not like I’m helping much at home what. Not like I was so close to Nai Nai.”
She stared mournfully at herself in the mirror, weighted down by satin and rhinestones. Did she want a veil? Did she like lace? Ball gown or mermaid shape?
She’d imagined her wedding dress as being white and long. She hadn’t expected there to be so many permutations on a theme. She felt pinned in place by the choices available to her.
The shop assistant could tell her heart wasn’t in it.
“Some ladies like other colour better,” said the shop assistant. “You want to try? We have blue, pink, peach, yellow—very nice colour, very feminine.”
“I thought usually white?”
“Some ladies don’t like white because—you know—” the shop assistant lowered her voice, but she was too superstitious to say it outright. “It’s related to a not so nice subject.”
The words clanged in Vivian’s ears. Briefly light-headed, she clutched at the back of a chair for balance. Her hands were freezing. In the mirror the white dress looked like a shroud. Her face hovering above it was the face of a mourner, or a ghost.
“Now that I’ve tried it, I’m not sure I like Western gown so much,” said Vivian, speaking with difficulty.
“We have cheongsam or qun kua,” said the shop assistant. “Very nice, very traditional. Miss is so slim, will suit the cheongsam.”
The jolt of red brocade was a relief. Vivian took a dress with gold trimmings, the highest of high collars and an even higher slit along the sides. Dragons and phoenixes writhed along the fabric. It was as red as a blare of trumpets, as red as the pop of fireworks.
This fresh chilli red had never suited her. In it she looked paler than ever, washed out by the vibrant shade. But the colour was a protective charm. It laid monsters to rest. It shut out hungry ghosts. It frightened shadows back into the corners where they belonged.
Vivian crept home with her spoils. That night she slept and did not dream of anything.
The next morning she regretted the purchase. Her fiancé would think it was ridiculous. She couldn’t wear a cheongsam down the aisle of an Anglican church. She would take it back to the boutique and return it. After all the white satin mermaid dress had suited her. The sweetheart neckline was so much more flattering than a mandarin collar.
She shoved the cheongsam in a bag and tried to sneak out, but Wei Yi was sitting on the floor of the laundry room, in the way of her exit. She was surrounded by webs of filigreed red paper.
“What’s this?” said Vivian.
“It’s called paper cutting,” said Wei Yi, not looking up. “You never see before meh?”
On the floor the paper cuttings unfurled. Some were disasters: a mutilated fish floated past like tumbleweed; a pair of flirtatious girls had been torn apart by an overly enthusiastic slash. But some of the pieces were astounding.
“Kwan Yin,” said Vivian.
The folds in the goddess’s robes had been rendered with extraordinary delicacy. Her eyes were gentle, her face double-chinned. Her halo was a red moon circled by ornate clouds.
“It’s for Nai Nai,” said Wei Yi. “Maybe Kwan Yin will have mercy on her even though she’s so blasphemous.”
“Shouldn’t talk like that about the dead,” said Vivian.
Wei Yi rolled her eyes, but the effort of her craft seemed to absorbing all her evil energies. Her response was mild: “It’s not disrespectful if it’s true.”
Her devotion touched Vivian. Surely not many seventeen-year-olds would spend so much time on so laborious a task. The sleet of impermanent art piled around her must have taken hours to produce.
“Did Nai Nai teach you how to do that?” Vivian said, trying to get back on friendlier ground.
Wei Yi’s face spasmed.
“Nai Nai was a rubber tapper with seven children,” she said. “She can’t even read! You think what, she was so free she can do all these hobbies, is it? I learnt it from YouTube lah!”
She crumpled the paper she was working on and flung it down on the floor to join the flickering red mass.
“Oh, whatever!” said Vivian in the fullness of her heart.
She bought the whitest, fluffiest, sheeniest, most beaded dress she could find in the boutique. It was strapless and low-backed to boot. Nai Nai would have hated it.
That night Vivian dreamt of her grandmother.
Nai Nai had climbed out of her coffin where she had been lying in the living room. She was wearing a kebaya, with a white baju and a batik sarong wrapped around her hips. No modern creation this—the blouse was fastened not with buttons but with kerongsang, ornate gold brooches studded with pearls and rhinestones.
Nai Nai was struggling with the kerongsang. In her dream Vivian reached out to help her.
“I can do!” said Nai Nai crossly. “Don’t so sibuk.” She batted at the kerongsang with the slim brown hands that had been so deft in life.
“What’s the matter? You want to take it off for what?” said Vivian in Hokkien.
“It’s too nice to wear outside,” Nai Nai complained. “When I was alive I used safety pins and it was enough. All this hassle just because I am like this. I didn’t save Yeh Yeh’s pension so you can spend on a carcass!”
“Why do you want to go outside?” Vivian took the bony arm. “Nai Nai, come, let’s go back to sleep. It’s so late already. Everybody is sleeping.”
Nai Nai was a tiny old lady with a dandelion fluff of white hair standing out from her head. She looked nothing like the spotty, tubby, furiously awkward Wei Yi, but her expression suddenly showed Vivian what her sister would look like when she was old. The contemptuous exasperation was exactly the same.
“If it’s not late, how can I go outside?” she said. “I have a long way to go. Hai!” She flung up her hands. “After they bury me, ask the priest to give you back the kerongsang.”
She started hopping towards the door, her arms held rod-straight out in front of her. The sight was comic and horrible.
This was the secret the family had been hiding from Vivian. Nai Nai had become a kuang shi.
“Nai Nai,” choked Vivian. “Please rest. You’re so old already, you can’t run around so much.”
“Don’t answer back!” shouted Nai Nai from the foyer. “Come and open the door for Nai Nai! Yeh Yeh will be angry. He cannot stand when people are late.”
Vivian envisioned Nai Nai hopping out of the house—past the neighbourhood park with its rustling bushes and creaking swings, past the neighbours’ Myvis and Peroduas, through the toll while the attendant slumbered. She saw Nai Nai hopping along the curves of the Titiwangsa Mountains, her halo of hair white against the bleeding red of the hills where the forests had peeled away to show the limestone. She saw Nai Nai passing oil palm plantations, their leaves dark glossy green under the brassy glare of sunshine—sleepy water buffalo flicking their tails in wide hot fields—rows of new white terrace houses standing in empty rows on bare hillsides. Up the long North-South Expressway, to her final home.