Bloody Fabulous: Stories of Fantasy and Fashion
“Nai Nai,” said Vivian. Don’t leave us, she wanted to say.
“Complain, complain!” Nai Nai was slapping at the doorknob with her useless stiff hands.
“You can’t go all that way,” said Vivian. She had an inspiration. “Your sarong will come undone.”
Whoever had laid Nai Nai out had dressed her like a true nyonya. The sarong was wound around her hips and tucked in at the waist, with no fastenings to hold it up.
“At my age, who cares,” said Nai Nai, but this had clearly given her pause.
“Come back to sleep,” coaxed Vivian. “I’ll tell Mummy. Bukit Tambun, right? I’ll sort it out for you.”
Nai Nai gave her a sharp look. “Can talk so sweetly but what does she do? Grandmother is being buried and she goes to buy a wedding dress!”
“The dress is not nice also,” said Nai Nai. “What happened to the first dress? That was nice. Red is a happy colour.”
“I know Nai Nai feels it’s pantang, but—”
“Pantang what pantang,” snapped Nai Nai. Like all witches, she hated to be accused of superstition. “White is a boring colour! Ah, when I got married everybody wanted to celebrate. We had two hundred guests and they all had chicken to eat. I looked so beautiful in my photo. And Yeh Yeh . . . ”
Nai Nai sank into reminiscence.
“What about Yeh Yeh?” prompted Vivian.
“Yeh Yeh looked the same as always. Like a useless playboy,” said Nai Nai. “He could only look nice and court girls.”
“Then you want to be buried with him for what?”
“That’s different,” said Nai Nai. “Whether I’m a good wife doesn’t have anything to do with what he was like.”
As if galvanised by Vivian’s resistance, she turned and made to hit the door again.
“If you listen to me, I’ll take the dress back to the shop,” said Vivian, driven by desperation.
Nai Nai paused. “You’ll buy the pretty cheongsam?”
“If you want also I’ll wear the kua,” said Vivian recklessly.
She tried not to imagine what her fiancé would say when he saw the loose red jacket and long skirt, embroidered in gold and silver with bug-eyed dragons and insectoid phoenixes. And the three-quarter bell sleeves, all the better to show the wealth of the family in the gold bracelets stacked on the bride’s wrists! How that would impress her future in-laws.
To her relief, Nai Nai said, “No lah! So old-fashioned. Cheongsam is nicer.”
She started hopping back towards the living room.
Vivian trailed behind, feeling somehow as if she had been outmaneouvred.
“Nai Nai, do you really want to be buried in Penang?”
Nai Nai peered up with suspicion in her reddened eyes as Vivian helped her back into the coffin.
“You want to change your mind, is it?”
“No, no, I’ll get the cheongsam. It’ll be in my room by tomorrow, I promise.”
Nai Nai smiled.
“You know why I wanted you all to call me Nai Nai?” she said before Vivian closed the coffin. “Even though Hokkien people call their grandmother Ah Ma?”
Vivian paused with her hand on the lid.
“In the movies, Nai Nai is always bad!”
Vivian woke up with her grandmother’s growly cackle in her ears.
Wei Yi was in the middle of a meltdown when Vivian came downstairs for breakfast. Ma bristled with relief:
“Ah, your sister is here. She’ll talk to you.”
Wei Yi was sitting enthroned in incandescence, clutching a bread knife. A charred hunk of what used to be kaya toast sat on her plate. The Star newspaper next to it was crisping at the edges.
Vivian began to sweat. She thought about turning on the ceiling fan, but that might stoke the flames.
She pulled out a chair and picked up the jar of kaya as if nothing was happening. “What’s up?”
Wei Yi turned hot coal eyes on Vivian.
“She doesn’t want to kill the dogs wor,” said Ma. “Angry already.”
“So? Who ask you to kill the dogs in the first place?” said Vivian.
“Stupid,” said Wei Yi. Her face was very pale, but her lips had the dull orange glow of heated metal. Fire breathed in her hair. A layer of ash lay on the crown of her head.
“Because of Nai Nai,” Ma explained. “Wei Yi heard the blood of a black dog is good for Nai Nai’s . . . condition.”
“It’s not right,” said Wei Yi. “It’s better for Nai Nai if—but you won’t understand one.”
Vivian spread a layer of kaya on her piece of bread before she answered. Her hands were shaking, but her voice was steady when she spoke.
“I think Ma is right. There’s no need to kill any dogs. Nai Nai is not serious about being a kuang shi. She’s just using it as an emotional blackmail.” She paused for reflection. “And I think she’s enjoying it also lah. You know Nai Nai was always very active. She likes to be up and about.”
Wei Yi dropped her butter knife.
“Eh, how you know?” said Ma.
“She talked to me in my dream last night because she didn’t like the wedding dress I bought,” said Vivian.
Ma’s eyes widened. “You went to buy your wedding dress when Nai Nai just pass away?”
“You saw Nai Nai?” cried Wei Yi. “What did she say?”
“She likes cheongsam better, and she wants to be buried in Penang,” said Vivian. “So I’m going to buy cheongsam. Ma, should think about sending her back to Penang. When she got nothing to complain about she will settle down.”
“Why she didn’t talk to me?” said Wei Yi. Beads of molten metal ran down her face, leaving silver trails. “I do so many jampi and she never talk to me! It’s not fair!”
Ma was torn between an urge to scold Vivian and the necessity of comforting Wei Yi. “Girl, don’t cry—Vivian, so disrespectful, I’m surprise Nai Nai never scold you—”
“Yi Yi,” said Vivian. “She didn’t talk to you because in Nai Nai’s eyes you are perfect already.” As she said this, she realised it was true.
Wei Yi—awkward, furious, and objectionable in every way—was Nai Nai’s ideal grandchild. There was no need to monitor or reprimand such a perfect heir. The surprise was that Nai Nai even thought it necessary to rise from the grave to order Vivian around, rather than just leaving the job to the next witch.
Of course, Nai Nai probably hadn’t had the chance to train Wei Yi in the standards expected of a wedding in Nai Nai’s family. The finer points of bridal fashion would certainly escape Wei Yi.
“Nai Nai only came back to scold people,” said Vivian. “She doesn’t need to scold you for anything.”
The unnatural metallic sheen of Wei Yi’s face went away. Her hair and eyes dimmed. Her mouth trembled.
Vivian expected a roar. Instead Wei Yi shoved her kaya toast away and laid her head on the table.
“I miss Nai Nai,” she sobbed.
Ma got up and touched Vivian on the shoulder.
“I have to go buy thing,” she whispered. “You cheer up your sister.”
Wei Yi’s skin was still hot when Vivian put her arm around her, but as Vivian held her Wei Yi’s temperature declined, until she merely felt feverish. Her tears went from scalding to lukewarm.
“Nai Nai, Nai Nai,” she wailed in that screechy show-off way Vivian had always hated. When they were growing up Vivian had not believed in Wei Yi’s tears—they seemed no more than a show, put on to impress the grown-ups.
Vivian now realised that the grief was as real as the volume deliberate. Wei Yi did not cry like that simply because she was sad, but because she wanted someone to listen to her.
In the old days it had been a parent or a teacher’s attention that she had sought. These howls were aimed directly at the all-too-responsive ears of their late grandmother.
“Wei Yi,” said Vivian. “I’ve thought of what you can do for Nai Nai.”
For once Wei Yi did not put Vivian’s ideas to scorn. She seemed to have gone up in her sister’s estimation for having seen Nai Nai’s importunate spectre.
Vivian had a feeling Nai Nai’s witchery had gone into Wei Yi’s paper cutting skills. YouTube couldn’t explain the unreal speed with which she did it.
Vivian tried picking up Wei Yi’s scissors and dropped them, yelping.
“What the—!” It had felt like an electric shock.
Wei Yi grabbed the scissors. “These are no good. I give you other ones to use.”
Vivian got the task of cutting out the sarong—a large rectangular piece of paper to which Wei Yi would add the batik motifs later. When she was done Wei Yi took a look and pursed her lips. The last time Vivian had felt this small was when she failed her first driving test two minutes after getting into the car.
“Not bad,” said Wei Yi unconvincingly. “Eh, you go help Ma do her whatever thing lah. I’ll work on this first.”