Blood For Saleby O Thiam Chin
They say it’s easier to drain the blood from the wrists and ankles, where it flows strong and rich, and where they heal more quickly, but of course you can cut them anywhere on their bodies, and they would still heal eventually. You can drain them all day long, and they will still live, albeit not in their best condition. There are some who do just that, draining them throughout the day, but the quality of the blood is often of weaker consistency, a lower grade, and they do not sell as well on the market. My mother tells me to cut from the same spot—on the wrists—twice a day, once in the morning, and once before I go to sleep. She used to do the blood-draining before she passed the work on to me, when I turned thirteen and understood more about the business aspect of the trade. She has to manage the increasing volume of incoming orders as well as my twin brothers, six years younger, who are attending a special-needs school; their daily care takes up a good deal of her time and energy. I do what I can to ease my mother’s daily load.
Every morning, before breakfast, I enter the small bedroom at the back of our four-room flat with a knife and a bucket. While it’s not entirely necessary, I wear an apron, just in case there is a spill. I also wear a face mask, though there’s hardly any smell in the room, only the faint lemony traces of the floor cleaner. My mother has tasked me with the general upkeep of the room: a sweep and mop in the afternoon after school. I would enter the bedroom very quietly, and although I’m sure he hears all my movements, he doesn’t react, often keeping his eyes closed. I would move the silver chain further up his left arm and wipe his wrist with alcohol swabs—something which my mother has chided me for being wasteful, “there’s no need for this, he won’t get infected”—before I make the cut. He doesn’t tense or make any movement; the blood fills up the bucket in less than five minutes, frothing with tiny bubbles. While waiting, I wipe the other areas where he’s chained—his ankles and neck—and check for cuts and abrasions, though this step in the routine is thoroughly unnecessary; his body is free of any scars or marks, except for those that were already there before he became a vampire. Before I leave with the bucket of blood, I straighten out the bed, arranging the pillow and folding the blanket. Sometimes he glances at me as I step out of the bedroom, his eyes dark and solemn with intent.
Once I’m out, my mother takes over the bucket from me, and hurries me to eat my breakfast. She prepares the blood according to the orders she has received the day before, into ten-, twenty-, fifty- and hundred-millilitre glass bottles, and places the leftovers in the fridge. She keeps the prices fair and reasonable, so there’s always a steady pool of customers. She makes all the deliveries herself, cutting off the need for a middle-man. My father managed this aspect of the business before he disappeared without a trace three years ago; my mother strongly suspects it was the doing of the vampires who band in small groups at the outskirts of our housing estate, seeking vengeance, fighting back. The situation has improved since the government launched a series of clean-ups following the Great Hunt to bring down their numbers; while there are still occasional sightings and attacks, they have become sporadic, even infrequent, and hardly mentioned in the news. According to a recent news report, there are fewer than one hundred of them left now, with over half the number held in heavily-guarded research facilities on Pulau Ubin and St John’s Island. My mother pays careful attention to these articles, cutting them out and filing them away. I read them when she’s out of the house, trying to find something in them to answer the questions in my head. Once, two years ago, I asked my mother about the man in our flat, his origin and how he came under our charge, and she hushed me up with a withering look, warning me not to utter a single word to anyone. While I have kept quiet over the years, it has not diminished my desire to find out who he is.
In the afternoon, back home from school, I pull out an animal—a rat, rabbit or bird—from the hatch, tie its legs and bring it to the man. We keep these animals in a sectioned-out part of the kitchen, and refresh the stock once a week from a private supplier that my mother has known for some time. We feed the man once a day, another task my mother has delegated to me once she sees that I’ve become proficient with the knife. Entering the room, I sense the focus of the man turning towards me, a subtle, imperceptible gesture, and I move with a studied purposefulness. I loosen the silver chain around the man’s neck and tilt his head slightly upwards, while his eye are latched on me, restrained, pensive. I would position a towel under his chin before slitting the animal’s throat and quickly bringing it to his lips, which would close around the bleeding wound. While he’s drinking, I stare at his bobbing Adam’s apple. When he’s done, I wipe his mouth with the towel, sometimes catching glimpses of his fangs when he does not retract them in time. He often seems apologetic when this happens, as if he has shown me something indecent or cruel.
After discarding the dead animal in a black trash bag, I wash up and have my lunch. At three, I head out and pick my younger brothers up from the drop-off point at a bus stop. They run straight at me, putting all their combined weight into their embrace, panting with excitement, like young puppies. Their faces are damp and sticky with sweat and food smears, their school uniforms stained with crayon marks and streaks of dirt. They would gush about their day, loud and incoherent, competing to offer up their stories. Back in the flat, I give them a quick bath and prepare their snack: cream crackers or pineapple biscuits and a cup of Horlicks, which I mix with ten-millimetres of blood, as my mother instructs. She says the blood is extremely nourishing for brain development, especially for growing children, which is why so many parents are willing to pay a high price for it. Your brothers need it too, she adds, and in the lee of her words, I feel her hope, a fervent desire that things can turn around for my brothers, that they will be normal. I observe them as they drink—their unfocused wide-set eyes, small upturned noses, half-open mouths—and imagine the blood pumping through their bodies, transforming them from the inside, turning them into better versions of themselves. Like my mother, I hold to this fragile hope, though as far as I could tell, there has been no sign that things are any different for them.
When they start nodding off at the kitchen table, I lay out the mattress in the living room and nudge them to take their naps. I sit and watch over them, fanning them with a cardboard sheet and patting their backs, and when the heat of the afternoon sweeps over me, I fall asleep beside them, feeling the animal-warmth of their soft, yielding bodies.
Life was hard, and there was no other choice but to leave. We had to find other places to survive in. There was a terrible famine the year we—my wife, Soo Ching, and my young daughter, Yi Chang, and I—boarded the ship and sailed south from Fujian. It was 1889. The journey was slow and long, and we suffered constant bouts of seasickness and dysentery. It was on this passage that our lives took a permanent, irreversible turn when we were attacked by a brood of vampires who masqueraded as labourers, likewise fleeing the hardships and persecution of the mainland. They worked quietly and methodically on all of us, and by the end of the journey, half of us were dead, and the other half changed. We were the ones who survived, and yet, of our new lives, and the transformation—what could we make of them? We hardly knew when we arrived at the shores of Singapore. Barely had we docked at the crowded, filthy harbour that we were pushed into the teeming masses of Chinatown’s narrow, noisy back lanes, forced to find our footing in the swirl of faces and tongues and mores. We blended in, and we staked our claim on the little we had. Everything was new—the surroundings, the way of life, our fears—and so was our hunger.
Yes, the hunger. It had a life of its own, one that slithers under the skin of all other needs, thriving, insistent, craving. My first taste of blood—it ached my jaws, fired every synapse, shoved me into oblivion. A sharp, bracing thrill, deadly and irresistible, as if you were biting on a charge of electricity. A mouthful of life in a mouthful of blood, the Eucharist that gave our lives a force and a yearning, its very meaning. We drank and we drank, yet we hungered all the same, all the time—it never went away.
It was only over the decades that we began to form an understanding of who we were, of what our nature was. Naturally, we made mistakes along the way, nothing major or significant to cause alarm, though some lessons were harder, or more hard-earned, than others. Like any living person, we could walk under the sun without damage, though long exposure would age our skin prematurely, leaving dark spots and wrinkles. And while a drink of blood would refresh the skin considerably, we were always ageing, albeit much, much more slowly than the living. I had seen some of the older ones, who looked to be in their forties and fifties, when they were in fact centuries-old. My daughter never looked a day beyond thirteen, in all the years she was alive.
As for our other appetites, they were still there. We ate simply, conservatively—a pot of sweet-potato porridge, salted black beans, stir-fried kai-lan—and occasionally, if our finances allowed, steamed anchovies or mullet, and a small slab of roast pork. Our bodies needed the energy—I was working as a coolie along the godowns of Singapore River, and Soo Ching, a washerwoman—and while we could go for a long stretch without drinking blood—painful as it was, that burning thirst—it was unthinkable not to eat for more than two or three days; we would not have been able to keep from fainting. It was expedient, yes, for the needs of the body always come first, unquestionably. But that was not to say I did not enjoy a drink of rice or sorghum wine, from time to time.
Yet, unlike most of my kind, I was lucky, comparatively speaking. I had my family with me, and every decision I had to make I made it with Soo Ching. I did nothing without considering my wife and daughter first, my only priority. We kept one another in check and sane throughout the years, through the war and upheavals, the changing landscapes and political climates. Others were not so fortunate; some succumbing to despair and self-immolation, some giving themselves over to rage and wild spates of killing. And their fate was almost always the same: a stake to the heart, the severing of the head, when they were finally captured. Their deaths were a reminder of our limitations, of the clear, frail line of mortality that could be drawn across our immortality. We watched as many fell, and we held our own as new generations of vampires arose from the dust of those who had gone before us.
Along the way, we made our own brand of ethics. Soo Ching and I always hunted together, and we didn’t take any chances. We killed and drank all we needed and buried the emptied bodies on the hills beyond Chinatown. Mostly men, and very rarely, women. No children, no one above seventy, no handicapped or disabled (Yi Chang’s request). We didn’t take anything from our victims, and we hunted only once a week, no more. And whoever we killed we buried properly. Soo Ching and I did all the work; we had agreed very early on not to take our daughter on our hunts. We would store the blood in jars and bottles and bags, and she would drink from them, without a word. Yi Chang knew enough not to question anything we did.
We avoided those of our kind, and we drew the lines. In the ever-growing population of those years, we were only passing faces on the street, minding our business, making our own living. We kept a low profile, and we disappeared into the years.
But sometimes the lines were not that clear, the division blurred. Once, we preyed on a homeless woman in the middle of the night at a park in Telok Ayer, and just as we were pulling our fangs out of her arms, a girl, about nine or ten years old, came out of the bushes, stunned and mumbling. That was when we realised that they were related somehow—mother and child perhaps. The girl remained rooted, unable to move away. Soo Ching stood up, her face darkening, stretching her hand towards the girl. I moved the dead woman’s body out of sight. When the girl didn’t stir, Soo Ching turned to me, her expression soft, uncertain. Let’s go, her eyes said.
I lifted the body into my arms, and the girl gasped, a sticky, frightful voice escaping from her mouth. Ma, she said, a barely audible word. It would have been wiser to kill the young girl—Soo Ching read my thought and shook her head. Let’s go, her stare insisted. To leave her now was to leave behind an eye-witness, not only of what we had done, but also to who we were—it was a dangerous thing; things might go out of hand. The girl’s helpless gaze volleyed between me and Soo Ching. The blood in my mouth had turned mineral, bitter. Soo Ching leapt into the darkness of a back lane, dissolving into the shadows and I followed closely behind with the body.
“She’s only a girl,” Soo Ching said, much later. “A poor, motherless girl.”
I had held her hands, nodding. I knew she was thinking about Yi Chang, our daughter, even though her memory was on the young girl we had left behind. We might not be the kind of monsters that our natures dictated—something that Soo Ching strongly believed—but we were monsters nonetheless. We killed and we drank; our hands dark with the blood of others. In my very self, I saw the creature that I was—vile, destructive, damned.
The man came into our lives, into our flat, when I was eleven. My father was still around then. Over breakfast, my parents told me about the new arrangement and the need to keep all of it private, not a word to anyone. They took me into the darkened bedroom, and that was the first time I saw him, on the bed, the silver chains holding him down. The knowledge of him—a vampire! in our flat!—was almost too much for me—still a child, with a child’s way of thinking—to bear, and it took all of my will to keep the whole affair to myself. He was the family’s secret, and mine as well.
In the earliest weeks, I would sometimes sneak into the bedroom and, standing a distance away, watch him. He would turn his head towards me, lifting his hands, as if beckoning to me. The first time I heard his voice—deep and gravelly—I thought it was something I had conjured up from my imagination. I didn’t register his voice at first, and he repeated what he said: What’s your name? I fled and stayed away for a few days. When I returned, again alone, he only smiled and slipped back into his thoughts. Sometimes, if I kept very still, I could hear soft words falling from his mouth, as if he were talking in his dream—did he dream? And what kind of dreams?—fragments of which I could hardly make any sense of. And the names: Soo Ching, Yi Chang. His voice dipped and went softer the more he spoke, and I was there, listening, enraptured.
When I told my mother all this, she hushed me: “Don’t believe all the nonsense you hear.”
Still, I went back and I listened. I slowly formed some ideas, a vague outline of his past; I wrote the little I could understand down on a notebook, which I kept beside me all the time. My younger brothers—not comprehending what was going on—often clamoured to enter the man’s room. My parents flatly refused, and would rely on me to enforce this, as they were out most of the time, making deliveries. Still, my brothers kept at it, kicking up impossible tantrums, whenever I said no. Worn down finally, I led them into the room, after I had extracted an agreement from them to keep this a secret between us. The first few times they were in the room, they remained absolutely quiet, as if chastened by the man’s presence. The man took kindly glances at them. Later, when they were familiar with him, they came closer and began to touch him—his fingers, his feet, his legs. The man obliged. I stood a half-step behind my brothers, stealing glimpses at the silver chains, at the man’s face. I held them back when they became boisterous, out of control, asking to climb onto the man’s body. Whenever this happened, I would slap their hands and shot them a censorious stare. The man would smile, flashing his fangs, and I would shepherd my brothers out of the room, amidst their screams and protests.
It took about a year before I finally touched the man. The skin on his arm was gossamer, warm, and I curled up my hand—the very real sense of its warmth shocked my fingers. Where and how had I gotten the idea that their skin was cold, reptilian? And why was he warm—was it the blood, or something else? The man had flinched, so slightly, at my touch, as if I had burnt him. There was a strain of pain in his eyes—perhaps a sensation recalled, triggered. What was he remembering—or who? Soo Ching, or Yi Chang?
When my father disappeared later on, my mother started me on the care of the man: wiping his face and neck twice a day, shaving him once a week, and clipping his nails whenever they grew too long. He submitted to these ministrations without a fuss. Though he was unable to move under the chains, I remained wary, often failing to mask my unease when he made the barest of movements, a twitch or a tremble. Once, I heard him humming softly under his breath while I was shaving him, the razor blade gliding smoothly across his stubbly chin. He gasped when I made the accidental nick—not in pain, no, but something more complicit, even sensual—the blood running down his throat. I panicked and submitted myself to a litany of apologies, but the man brushed them aside with a shake of his head. Don’t worry, it’s nothing.
Then there was that time he rested his fingers on my hand while I was wiping him down. I had not noticed it then—the touch was so light, insubstantial. I didn’t pull away, even after the realisation. I sensed a welling of thoughts behind his touch, as if he were trying to connect it with something inside him, a memory perhaps. Then a knot of sharp pain pinched my lower abdomen. I ran to the bathroom, where I pulled down my panties and noticed the dark smudges of blood. I didn’t know what the blood meant—was it because of the man? Had he hurt me in some way? Yet, even in the midst of foundering through this new fear, I had also felt a roiling of exhilaration, one spiked with illicit thrill, as if I had been chosen by the man, that his touch had somehow caused the blood to flow from my body so unexpectedly. I touched the blood and tasted it—earthy, carnal, edged with the salts and secrets of my ripening, transforming body.
Over a hundred years, we remained hidden, assuming new identities when we reached the rightful end of a life, when we hit 75 or 80. We moved constantly, from housing estate to housing estate, taking up new jobs, mostly menial, low-paying jobs as cleaners, dishwashers, foodstall servers, and saving whatever we could. As we worked, Soo Ching and I eavesdropped on conversations and took note of the comings and goings of people. We observed the drunks and left-alones, the desperate and the lonely—we tracked them down and took the lives they had, and their identities, too. Rarely did anyone miss them—they no longer mattered in some way, slipped through the cracks. Along the way, we saw those of our kind—the hungry gaze, the flash of fangs, a knowing smile—but we left them alone, and they us. Most of them existed on their own, sometimes as a couple, and on very rare occasions, in small packs as families, unrelated of course. There were occasions when we drew more attention than we should have—some of our kind started tracking us, noting our movements, circling us as if we were prey—and Soo Ching and I had to nip it in the bud, with a confrontation or a fight, the latter often a head-on, life-or-death situation. What had they wanted—territory? A lust of our blood? Envy? We killed for all sorts of reasons, noble or trivial or otherwise; the threat was there, and there was no way but to take it out. We hardly thought about the outcomes of these fights; we could not allow fear to overtake us. We knew we had to live, and to that end, we fought hard, resolutely. Yi Chang was aware of these fights, and though she wanted to join us, we had never involved her in them. It’s too early, you’re still young, Soo Ching would tell her.
Yi Chang—my pale lily, the pulse in my vein, my fair, beautiful girl. Her name pierced my heart, even now.
One night, coming back from a scuffle with a much younger, murderous couple, Yi Chang had held my still-shaking hands, wiping the blood off them. My arms and face were covered in strips of pink flesh, the echo of screams still ringing in my ears. She kissed my hands and put her face into my palms, wetting them with her tears. I was so worried, she said, the shaky words tripping out of her mouth, why did we have to do this? I didn’t say anything, only move my hand across the black expanse of her hair, calming myself down with each long stroke. She brought her lips to the open wounds, salving them, taking away their sting.
Yi Chang’s voice floated up to me, faint and ghostly, and I looked down at her absently. She brushed something off my cheeks, blood—and I realised—tears, too. My throat tightened, and I let out a sound—a bitter laugh mingled with sadness. This time, I dropped my head into my daughter’s lap, snuffing out the sound in the depth of her body, whispering to myself: I’m still here, I’m still here, I’m still here.
Soo Ching and I rarely talked about these fights, though she often slipped into long periods of silence and pensiveness, her face glazed over with a film of blankness. I had known most of her darker moods, back even before we were married, in the old days in Fujian. How deep she fell when her mother died in childbirth, when she was only fifteen; the death of three of her beloved younger brothers from the yellow fever epidemic that spread across the county, one that claimed tens of thousands of lives. Her family had owned a small plot of millet and barley beside my family’s, and we had spent our entire youth in the fields, helping to plant the seedlings and harvesting the crops. In my mind’s eye, Soo Ching was always there, her hand swinging the sickle in a gentle arc, cutting the tall willowy stalks of barley, her head wrapped in a damp rag-cloth, breaking out in a harvest song, her voice moving through the hot sultry air like a spell. When did I know I loved her—it could have been from any moment during that time, when my gaze began to fall on her at every opportunity, when my body started bending towards her with a keen, exquisite ache. I could have loved her at twelve, fifteen or eighteen—the deep awareness of her and the definite shape of my feelings were already grounded in my head, before I knew to call it love. We were married at nineteen, and two years later, we had Yi Chang, a small, peach-cheeked baby girl. With her birth, our lives bloomed like a field of green, budding shoots, reaching for the light; a child deepened, strengthened our hold on life, making it bearable, possible, even fertile with hope, joy. Soo Ching and I looked at Yi Chang, and we knew without the need to admit to each other: We would do anything to protect her, to keep her safe.
We lived our lives with frugality, with dogged gumption, until the famine came, and things became a matter of life or death—we could stay and starve, like many in our village, still tilling the dying fields, or we could go and find other ways to live, away from home and kin. And so we left, and then everything changed in the journey down south to Nanyang. Fortunes cracked a cruel smile, waved a dismissive hand—we took what it gave, and we lived another day. We survived somehow.
And we would have taken everything for granted, for as long we lived, if not for the Great Hunt.
I sit in the dark in the man’s room during the afternoons when my brothers are asleep. I like the deep silence of the room, with the curtains drawn, which clears my mind, and stills the chaos of my thoughts. I push the chair against the wall, to make myself as inconspicuous as possible. The man usually has his eyes closed, though whether he’s sleeping or thinking, I can’t tell. I like looking into his eyes, but only in passing and for the briefest of glimpses: they are soft, full of sorrows, deeply ancient. I feel as if I were being pulled into a dark, warm pit, plunging, falling endlessly. I study the features of his face, commit them to memory; they surface during my quiet moments, before I sleep, when I wake. I keep them alive with each pull of my memory, with my longing.
He’s lying very still when I come into the room, after putting my brothers down to sleep. I sit in the chair, upright, watching.
“Yi Chang?” the man calls out, dreamily, stirring out of his sleep. His hands ball up, shaking the chains. His open mouth, white gleaming fangs.
“Yes?” I whisper, getting up. I stay in the shadows, just beyond the bed.
“Come closer,” he says.
I step into the sallow light, holding my hands before me. The man stares at me; something shifts in his eyes, quickening for a moment, then dimming. He recognises me for who I am not, but his smile absolves me. A surge of blood churns inside me, keeps me fixed to the spot. I look at his lips, at the fangs; I feel drained, heady, as if all the air in the room has been sucked out. I suddenly reach out and touch one of the fangs; the man shakes his head, jerks it back. A pinprick of blood on my forefinger, pooling into a small ruby bead. I gasp, breathless, flushed with a raw urge.
I bring my finger to my mouth, levelling my gaze at the man. He watches me, his features distorted, his face hardening into something that’s almost hostile, savage. He flashes his fangs again, lengthening them, as if in warning. Then, in the next instant, they are gone, and he shuts his eyes.
“Go. Go away.”
I leave the room chastened, shame-faced, as if I had been exposed for something unspeakably heinous. I take a long shower and wash myself twice over; the bleeding of the finger has stopped, yet I can’t help but imagine a throb of pain whenever I cast an eye over it. Later, when my mother questions the plaster over the wound, I explain it away with something vague, a careless handling of the kitchen knife while preparing the snacks for my brothers. My mother says nothing at first, but the manner in which she scans my face, as if trying to weigh the severity of my lie, is enough to show me how weak and flimsy my explanation is. Don’t let it fester, she finally says. For the rest of the day, I stay away from the man’s bedroom, my stomach clenching up whenever I think of what I’ve done.
The next morning, my mother shakes me up early from my sleep and tells me to drain the man. “We need more blood today. Quite a bit of orders from yesterday.”
“I’m not feeling well,” I say, putting my hand around my waist, pulling a face.
“I don’t know, my stomach hurts.”
‘No, get up, you don’t look sick to me. Quick. Wake your brothers, too.”
Dropping my guise, I get up and pad over to the mattress where my brothers are sleeping, lumped together in a heap, and jab them in their sides. They stir slowly awake, their eyes wary, mistrustful, as if they have found themselves in a foreign place. They gurgle in their slow, guttural way, a form of baby-talk, and start to grab at each other. From a very young age, I know my brothers are unlike most of the boys I know or see around me, and while I’m used to how they look and behave, it still stings me—and my mother, as well, though she’s quick to hide her annoyance—when people stop on the streets and stare at them. When this happens, my mother would quickly hurry my brothers along, her movements brusque; often her anger would take a swing towards me, as if I have done something wrong, or failed at a chore: Why are you so slow? Why can’t you even do this simple thing? What’s wrong with you? For a long time, I cannot tell the difference between what’s spoken and what’s truly intended, and so I take the blame for everything that has gone wrong in my family: my brothers, the disappearance of my father, my mother’s rage. I turn inwards and learn to take refuge in my own silence. What else can I do—run from my family? Where can I go?
I marshal my brothers through the morning routine and sit them at the dining table for breakfast. My mother takes out a small bottle of blood and pours it into the cups of Milo. She watches my brothers as they drink, the lines deepening on her forehead, her eyes tired. When they are done, I take them down to the bus stop and usher them onto the school bus.
Back home, my mother looks up from a handful of order slips, says: “What’s going on?”
I slide into the chair and drink my Milo. The dregs taste bitter on my tongue—is it blood? I fiddle with the plaster, rip it off. I pretend not to hear her.
“I need you to do what I tell you. I need you to listen.”
“Haven’t I been doing that?”
My mother sighs, pushes the papers away. “I know things have not been easy, but I’m trying. Really I am.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to stay on top of things when I’m not around. Not only with your brothers, but also…” She nods her head in the direction of the man’s room. I glance at the mark on my finger, dried-up, and peel at the raw skin.
“He’s what keeping us alive, his blood.”
“I know, I know.”
“I need to know I can trust him with you when I’m not around, that you can handle him. I can’t have you living in that head of yours, always daydreaming, making a mess of things.”
“When have I done that?” I say. My mother glances at my finger, and fixes me with a knowing glare. I bite down on my lips and withdraw my hand.
“He’s not something to play around with. He’s dangerous. And you need to be on your guard all the time, especially when you drain him. You already know how to do that, yes, but you have to start alert. You can’t be distracted.”
“But I’m always alert. I check the chains every morning.”
“Yes, but you have to be vigilant still. He’s not like us.”
“I know that, I’m not dumb. I know who he is, what he is. I know what he can do.” I get up, clear the empty dishes on the table, and move to the sink.
“Just be careful around him, will you?” my mother says, as I leave the kitchen.
Her words stay with me as I move through the day, wheeling inside me like a flock of crows, unable to settle down. What does she know? What have I revealed from what I’ve tried to hide? When I was nine, some classmates took to making small cuts on my legs and arms with their art-and-craft penknives, to draw some sort of reaction from me—a cry perhaps, or an angry word—and while I attempted to cover them up with long-sleeved shirts and pants, making up excuses for doing so, my mother was immediately onto me, calling my bluff. Who is doing this to you? she would scream, and when I refused to offer up any names, she would take to whipping me, to force a reply. Why are you so stubborn? People hurt you, and you’re stupid enough to let them do this to you. Still, I said nothing; I pretended it didn’t matter at all. This won’t last forever, I told myself. My classmates soon got tired of me, and moved on to another girl. My mother, too, finally left me alone, her hands full with the increasingly demanding needs of my brothers. I was safe again, in the world I made inside myself—alone, yes, but safe, ultimately.
And the man—despite what my mother said—is already there, hidden somewhere in that world inside me, ensconced, anchored.
Who knows when the Great Hunt first started? Some said it happened the year the body of a six-year-old boy was found in a drain, his throat torn apart. The investigation was narrowed down to a pack of vampires that lived in the same block of flats as the boy’s family. Even though they were apprehended and killed, the suspicion and animosity had already set in. Others said it happened with the change of government, with its rigidly conservative system, bending towards a fundamental, religious stance. First they got rid of the dissenters, followed by the migrants and foreigners, then the gays, and finally, us. Neighbours informing on neighbours, friends playing Judas, suspicion rising to fever pitch, turning ugly. Everyone was a potential suspect, and no chances taken; it was better to be safe than sorry.
Whatever the case, a wave of panic rose and rippled out, leading to a spattering of killings from both sides, even as more and more vampires were identified and exposed. Those who could or wanted to did put up a fight; the rest of us slipped further into hiding, willing ourselves to become invisible or harmless or weak. But the tide had already turned—we were now being hunted to our extinction.
The first spate of killings in the early days sent Soo Ching and I into a state of anxiety. Do we leave now, or wait for things to settle? We had seen strikes and revolts and uprisings across our many lives, and we were apprehensive about making snap, irrational decisions. Things could still change, and even turn for the better, we told ourselves; this was our home, after all, where we had stayed for nearly two centuries. And then the killings escalated, and a travel suspension took immediate effect. We ground our lives down to bare bones, and stayed low, out of sight. We barricaded ourselves in the flat and secured all the locks. I held Yi Chang’s hand every night, assuring her: this will be over soon. But it did. The killings went on, like a wild fire, out of control.
And they finally came for us.
They broke down the door, rushed in. They staked Yi Chang first, who didn’t even have a chance—or the will—to put up any resistance. Her groans swelled into a shrill scream, filling up the whole living room. She fell, dissolved into the ground in a pool of blood. Soo Ching picked up the stake and plunged it into the head of the attacker, driving it deep. A cry escaped her mouth, stricken, inhuman. Men in thick body armour and wooden stakes continued to pour into the flat, in droves. I snapped their necks and tore the arms from their bodies, and yet they still pounded on me, one after another.
I grabbed Soo Ching’s hand and made for the kitchen windows. Ninth floor down; we could make the escape. Soo Ching slumped against me, her body gone leaden. Her fangs had cut into her lower lips, embedding themselves in the flesh. Blood dripped from her mouth. She steeled herself against my tugs, let her hand go limp in mine.
“I can’t do this,” she said. “Not anymore.”
“You can. You will.”
“Hou Wei, I’m tired.”
“No, you stay with me now, you hear?”
I climbed onto the window ledge, my hand on Soo Ching’s arm, pulling with all my strength. I looked into her face, which was etched with deep anguish. She slipped her arm out of my grasp and shoved me out of the window into the night air.
“Go, go now.”
The man whispers in his sleep, his eyes darting left and right under the lids. He lifts his hand slightly above the bed; the chain holds it back. I go up and put my hand on his, tucking it under the blanket. He jerks awake on the bed, stretching the chain around his neck, the muscles in them thickening into coils. He bares his fangs, which flash white against the pink flesh of his mouth. He gulps in air, in spades.
He sinks back into the pillow, turns to watch me.
“Who’s Yi Chang?” I say. “Who’s Soo Ching?”
The man scrunches up his face, his Adam’s apple bobbing manically in his throat. He says nothing, yet does not let go of his stare.
“You can tell me.”
Still, no words.
“Do you want to eat now?” I lift the rabbit by the scruff of its neck, holding it up. The rabbit kicks feebly; I give it a few rough shakes, and it quietens. The man nods. I arrange a towel under his chin, ready my knife. I push the blade across the rabbit’s throat, which splits open like a tear. The man opens his mouth, his tongue flickered at the taste of the blood. I bring the rabbit nearer to him. His eyes are half-shut, trembling. I run a finger across his right cheek, and flick a trail of blood running from the edge of his mouth. My skin tingles with a humming buzz, and my mind falls open, spilling out my desire.
The man stops and pulls his mouth away from the bloody slit. His eyes register a moment of puzzlement.
I let the dead rabbit drop to the floor, and lift my wrist to his lips. I feel his fangs on my skin, hard, resistant; the pulses raging in my wrist, beating against him. He holds terribly still, waiting, deciding. Go ahead, my thought whispers, you want this.
I drill the tip of the knife into my wrist; a gem of blood pools as the blade goes in. Drink, drink, I think again. I touch my wrist on his lips, and the blood leaks into the dark interior of his mouth. Finally, he latches on, puncturing the wound with his fangs, digging into my flesh. My wrist throbs with a pulsating ache; I gasp.
A pathway of nerves lights up, from my fingers to the seat of my crotch. The warmth blooms and spreads, a thousand ripples across my body.
The blood flows freely, and he drinks and drinks.
The girl’s wrist falls from my mouth at some point and rests on my chest, her body leaning heavily against me on the bed, its weight an anchor holding me still. Her dark hair fans across my torso, and I keep pulling at the chains, trying to touch it. I blink against the glare of the dim sunlight streaming into the room, the world outside a bright, empty sky. My lips retain the warm murmur from the blood, a pleasantly numbing sensation.
Soo Ching’s mane of hair, Yi Chang’s pale, fragile hands, outstretched—who is this girl?
The chains dig into my flesh around my wrists, chafing the skin red-pink, then black-purple. I would love to run my fingers through the hair and touch the spots where my fangs had pierced her and pour my own blood through her mouth, filling her up. She would be my blood, my own.
When I returned to the flat a week later, after the raid, the entire place had been cleaned up. No traces of Soo Ching or Yi Chang remained, not even a smudge of blood. I fled the place, and took to hiding myself amongst the homeless in my housing estate, masked in rags and dirt, sleeping wherever I could. Come morning, I would roam from street to street, scrambling into drains and sewers for safety and food; at night, when the hunt parties were at their peak, I retreated to the parks, sleeping in dugouts and thick undergrowth. Every movement was a threat, every shout a warning cry. I leapt awake, my body tensely coiled, the dreams—of Soo Ching and Yi Chang, of their deaths—clinging onto my every waking thought like hooks, pulling at its flesh. I saw them everywhere, on every face—screaming, flinging them themselves at me. I lost my thirst, the ghostly ache that came and went; I ground my fangs against anything I could find—a steel pole, a cement slab, the flesh-encrusted skulls of small beasts.
In my sleep, the voices, wild and frenzied, and the memory of blood, ebbing and crashing like tides on the shore, from time immemorial. I tasted their blood in my dreams, I heard their howls, their wails; I smelled their body on my fingers, in the dirt under the sharp crescents of my nails. Still, I could not bring myself over the edge, to snuff my life out.
The night they took me, I was sleeping under a bench in the park, shrouded in layers of dirty clothes. I felt the chain around my neck, choking me awake. I whipped my hands around, blind to the swirl of movements around me; a push to the ground, my face flattened with a boot, chain tightening around my hands. Bits of conversation fell on me—a man and a woman, in hushed, angry tones.
“Go, grab his legs, tie them up.”
“Just look at him. He’s already half-dead, he can’t even move.”
“For fuck’s sake, just hold him down.”
“He’s no use to us, like this.”
“Just shut up. We need his blood.”
They lifted and dragged me to a car parked at a curb, dumped me into the back. The side of my face was wet and speckled with grit. Above me in the dark, someone—a woman?—held a stake against my chest, keeping a firm pressure—push in, push it in, a voice whispered. In my mind, I see the vision: Soo Ching leaping into a burning pool, hurling herself after the dwindling figure of Yi Chang, their bodies bending out of shape, longer and slimmer, eel-like. In the deep blue, they slithered into each other, a continuous, flowing red sash, shining bright, emitting flashes of brilliance. They came near and held out their tail for a moment; the sounds they made were like tiny cackles of electricity, bristling with charge. And then they swam away, and I fell through.
They snuck me into the flat and put me in the room. They tore the clothes off me and wiped me down harshly with soap and garlic. My skin split open like a torn-apart fruit, raw, mushy. I bit on the thick stakes they stuck into my mouth, crushing them into pieces. They kept me weak and drowsy from hunger, pumping my veins with a cocktail of meds. I fell into long, spiraling dreams, into trances; everything removed, soft and intangible.
When they started drawing my blood, I turned my face away and closed my eyes. They took what they wanted, and left me alone for the rest of day. My mind unwound itself down, emptied out. The dreams were always there, still alive, but they slipped from my grip, if I pressed against them or looked too closely.
At first it was just the man and the woman—his wife, I knew later. And then, it was only the woman. And after some time, the girl appeared, with her small hands and pale skin. Her hair.
And I suddenly remembered, all over again.
The girl sleeps and doesn’t stir. The light outside the room has weakened, throwing the room several shades darker. Is she dreaming? What does she dream about? The ceaseless urges of the blood, the dark tangle of her memories? Her mother, or her brothers? I think of Soo Ching and Yi Chang falling into the water, serpent-like, darting into the darkness, shooting like bright, burning stars. I see them fuse out, vanish, become nothing. Does the girl, too, dream such dreams?
Still, I hold out another vision for her: The girl stretches her hands out, her eyes glimmering. She pushes her body upward, arching into flight. The hair, cascading down her back like a shiny coat of feathers, shivers in the bracing air as she makes the leap. She takes a deep breath; she is brave, unfrightened. She brims with newness, with a fierce, wild knowledge. A rush of blood through her body, pounding in her head; the thirst feels like something’s pushing out of her, thrashing with pain, with life. She breaks out of her skin; she makes her escape. She becomes the air, becomes the sky—everywhere, all at once. She’s, once again, my wife and my daughter, a new creature born into the night. My Athena, my love.
I hold my breath, and I watch her soar—into the heights, into the darkness that lies just beyond.
ContributorO Thiam Chin
O THIAM CHIN is the author of five collections of short fiction: Free-Falling Man, Never Been Better, Under The Sun, The Rest Of Your Life and Everything That Comes With It, and Love, Or Something Like Love. O was an honorary fellow of the Iowa International Writing Program in 2010, a recipient of the National Arts Council’s Young Artist Award in 2012, and has been shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize. He is the winner of the inaugural Epigram Books Fiction Prize for his first novel, Now That It’s Over, which was published in June 2016.