(Note: This story was originally published under the name Damyanti Ghosh.)
She could hear the little darlings. They made minute scrapy-whispery sounds as they fed on flesh, desperate to grow, so they could get on with their brief lives as the hairy maggot blowfly. Their dirty-yellow warty bodies looked true to their common name, but Farah preferred to call them Chrysomya rufifacies. Sounded scientific, and so much better.
On days like this at work, when she passed by the entomology observation area, she felt a pinch of regret. She would have loved to see bunches of these larvae at work on his body, starting from the shot wound, which they would have attacked first, and then all his other orifices. They ate at the holes first, made their way in.
But as usual, she had taken the more scientific, risk-averse route. Lowering him into the ground just like that would have invited all kinds of critters, big and small. And it would stink, that rotten egg-whiskey-soured-over-days smell. Questions would come knocking at her door.
Instead, she kept him in a drum of acid for the two days she spent visiting all the relatives and going for the Hari Raya open houses. You look so much better, her aunts cooed. Of course she looked better– she had gone on spa trips, taken a few Botox shots, put in hours at a gym, and was applying for that teaching post in Sacramento, USA. If she got it, she would buy her first one-piece, and sun herself at a beach in San Francisco. No more boiling inside the swimsuits fitted from forehead to toe she had worn as a teenager on her trips to Redang. And no, she didn’t need a man, she had made sure of it now.
Mak’s beloved tabby had disappeared.
Two months later, Farah was still putting out cat food and water for her dead mother’s missing cat, every single day. Each day, she hoped the tabby would saunter back, but only ants got to the kibble. She ended up stumbling on the bowl once in a while, spilling water, which she then had to mop up. She would have to stop, not go through the motions again on autopilot the next morning.
Plunking down the car keys on the marble dining table as the empty chairs stared at her, she headed towards the bedroom she’d shared with her Mak ever since her separation six years ago. She didn’t want her old room, and Ayah had died in the guest bedroom– so at forty, she’d moved back to sleep in her mother’s bed. She did not want to see her puffy eyes in the mirror, the oily, pimpled skin that no amount of makeup could cover up. Sweat trickled down her throat, under her hijab. On days like this, she wanted to rip it off and be done with it. Her phone pinged as she began to strip. She made quick work of her clothes and walked out to her handbag, wearing only her slip and underwear.
“Are you home?”
How did he know to send her a message just after she got home? Some days, like today, when the lab had to work on an urgent case, she stayed back late. On others, in those rare spells when the police had nothing on the boil and she could help with research, she came back early, but each time, her Whatsapp beeped minutes after she’d reached home.
“Yes, got in a while back.“
She typed in the reply. She wanted to go for her shower now, but sank down to the floor instead, phone in hand– a few moments spent chatting wouldn’t hurt. The marble floor felt cool beneath her, and she flicked on the air conditioning.
“What are you wearing?”
Always that question these days. Why did he have to ask that? And if he wanted to know so bad, why won’t he come see her?
“My work clothes, of course, I just came in.”
She wouldn’t tell him she wore just her slip.
“Send me a picture?”
He had a whole range of his photos on his Facebook, from childhood to youth, and now, at thirty five, Adil Omar looked like a stylish Malay man about town. So different from her ex-husband (still-husband, husband-in-separation, what do you call such husbands?) who wore the Baju Melayu at all the Hari Raya open houses. To the places where he had taken her and not his first wife, he insisted she wear traditional Malay clothes as well.
“How is your day at office?”
She often sent him replies at tangents with his questions and requests.
The clock in the dining hall struck nine, and sent its gong ringing through the bungalow, the ornate living room, the three bedrooms, the kitchen, and all the way to the large, sloping garden outside. Adil would have just crossed lunchtime at his London office.
Her own Facebook profile pic dated twelve years ago, when at thirty-three, she had danced at a small private party with a bunch of distant girlfriends, her hair swinging free. She had made no mention of when the photo was taken and how she looked now.
“All good. A spot of trouble with the boss, but nothing major. Yours?”
He never insisted much on the candid photos, Alhamdulillah, or things could get sticky. She felt bad about cheating him — but as soon as she felt better about life, she intended to melt ten years off her body in a stint of spas, dermatologists. A plastic surgeon, if necessary. She would look better than those pictures she’d sent him, soon.
When he came to KL, she would surprise him with a viewing of their three-storied Kenny Hill bungalow at Bukit Tunku — and if things worked out, that’s where they’d move in later. After some major renovations, of course. She would ask Sofia who kept house at the bungalow to employ another maid so the new Farah Adil Omar could begin to invite guests, part of her role as a married woman.
That dream home was Mak’s gift to her. On paper it belonged to Mak’s father, Farah’s grandfather, but a few formalities, and it would be hers. She just had to make time for the solicitors. She would do it once things worked out with Adil.
“Facts and figures, as usual.”
In the beginning, she’d told him she worked at a Human Resources department, kept her office address vague. A necessary precaution, because everyone knew what sort of online predators lurked these days– she would tell him the truth when she met him, if they liked each other face to face. For now, best deflect the conversation back to him.
“What happened with the boss?”
He would tell her. He told her when he got into trouble, and then she spent days consoling him. Why stuck to your phone all the time, Mak used to say, what is there in this cursed gadget? Why don’t we go out somewhere, and we could meet new people?
What new people, Mak? she wanted to retort, but never did. Who would want to hook up with a separated woman, a second wife who couldn’t get a divorce no matter how much money her parents spent? And even if she got it, Mak, who would look at your divorced Malay daughter?
Farah clutched at her slip, and tugging it off, ran to the shower. No matter how many fights she had with Mak, no matter how much Mak bullied her and she spoke back, Mak had supported her. Taken care of her when she came back broken from her marriage, been excited when she got this job she loved (it will keep you occupied, Mak said, I only wish it were cleaner, no flies and maggots, but if you like it and it helps fight crime), woken her up with cups of tea, and welcomed her each evening with a tray of snacks, a hot dinner. Mak, her mother. She herself would never be a mother, and now she lived motherless, alone, because Mak had to go walk out on the road at the wrong moment for a rogue car to find her, smash her to pieces. Ayah died of cancer, but Mak walked out to her death, the stupid, stupid woman.
She turned the shower as hot and pummeling as it could get, letting the bathroom cloud up with steam as she sat on the floor, head bent between her knees. Outside, the phone pinged again.
Adil with his troubles. Adil who had work permit issues and needed help. Adil who told her she looked beautiful, that he wanted to be with her, and though he had never met her, he knew she was his twin flame, his soul mate. He was a moderate man, a liberal Muslim, a metrosexual man who believed a woman his equal. When, not if, when he had persuaded her that she was the only one for him, he said, he would take her away to treasure her beauty and her good nature. She would be a modern woman of the 21st century, in every sense.
This Hari Raya Haji he would return to KL, or she could come see him in London. It embarrassed him to ask, but could she wire him some more money — nothing much, just a few hundred pounds so he could wait till this matter of the permit cleared up. Farah squeezed her eyes shut from the burn, but she had no soap in her eyes.
Hari Raya Haji had come and gone, as had her birthday, then Christmas, New Year, the Chinese New Year holidays and a week ago, Valentines day, each of which she had spent alone. Farah now knew something was wrong, had to be, or he would have visited, but knowing and accepting are two different things. Since she did not accept, she wanted to verify.
Farah had often heard Chun Hwa, her assistant, talk about her boyfriend Jaden who worked with the police, in the fledgling department that was supposed to fight cybercrime. But he spent most of his time browsing the internet, playing games, and writing complicated, but completely useless reports. So one evening while arranging the plastic boxes of blowflies under observation for life cycle studies, Farah told Chun Hwa all about her ‘cousin’ who met someone on Facebook, went crazy over him and kept sending him money, but he’d refused to meet her so far and her family was worried. The two women watched the houseflies emerge, struggle with the casings of their pupae, wrestle them off, and dry their wings so they could fly. As she made notes, Chun Hwa promised to help out. Jaden might enjoy to having something different to do.
After a while, the true identity of the ‘cousin’ became clear, but Chun Hwa, bless her, stuck to the fictional bit. She brought in files and screenshots in a USB drive two weeks later, and back at home that evening Farah saw on her screen the other girls, or women, her ‘Adil’ had spoken to. Taken money from. Called beautiful. Made promises to.
The best part, or worst, he lived in Kuala Lumpur. Not far from her. Near enough, in fact, that he could watch her Tropicana bungalow, watch her drive in and out. According to Jaden, quite a few young men lived at that address he’d found, at the apartment opposite her bungalow. He had yet to identify Adil. He hadn’t gone in and made physical checks, but all the surnames sounded African — Adebayo, Guobadia, Okoli, Laleye. Did she want him to investigate further?
Farah tugged out the pen drive and tossed it across the room. On her screen a warning popped up: “The disk was not ejected properly. Eject disk before disconnecting or turning it off.” Another smartass telling her what to do. She shoved at her laptop, but the force did not carry it across the table, Syukur Alhamdulillah, or she would have lost a bunch of reports she hadn’t backed up. She pushed her Ayah’s old table, making it shake on its unsteady feet. No, no more investigations.
She would take it from there herself.
Farah noticed for the first time that her clothes had picked up traces of that maggoty smell from the lab, as if someone had vomited boiled eggs and whiskey all over her. Had her Mak still been around, she would have had a fit. But Mak wasn’t around, and Adil wasn’t either. Adil didn’t exist, in fact.
In the bathroom, she began to unpin her tudung, her hands slow, patient. She would need the blue shawl intact tomorrow morning. Did he crack jokes about her, her body, her looks, when she replied to his messages, all mushy?
She touched her neck, felt for the tiny no-snag pin that held the shorter, left side of her shawl in place. Did he show her messages to his friends?
Still too much cloth remained on her head, pinned at too many places. But rules remained rules — Malay women at her job had to wear the hijab. Her boss, a pious Muslim like her family, insisted. Some days she wanted to shoot him, the way her grandfather had taught her to shoot boar as a twelve year old, on their trips to plantations in Kuala Terengganu. She wished her Ayah had been more like her grandfather, less rigid.
All men so pious these days, so holier-than-thou, so protective of a woman’s purity — as if a woman’s body held all of her, all that mattered. This Adil creep had understood how her parents had brought her up. He knew how she longed to walk out of her car, hair flowing in the wind. He knew how she felt at nights in bed alone. Of course he did. She had told him.
True, she had done her bit of cheating, sending him photos of her younger self, telling him small lies about her job and lifestyle, harmless peccadilloes, easily corrected. But he had not sent her pictures of a slightly younger self. He had fabricated a man.
A man who told her he loved her, a man who lied and took her money, a man who told her what to do. How he must have laughed when he saw the pictures she sent him — he knew what she really looked like, possibly where she worked. Like her Ayah, or her husband-in separation, all the men she’d ever met in fact, who, with those upturned lips, looked at her and laughed, what can you do?
She would show him what she could do.
Unclipping the brooch that held the longer end of the shawl under her chin, she reached out behind the top of her head for the ball pin, releasing the fabric, both ends now hanging straight in front of her, held together by a small brooch, like a shiny green beetle — Mak’s gift, too shiny to wear on the outside, and with its crust of small, but well-cut emeralds, too expensive. Kuala Lumpur was no longer the safe city of her childhood, the place where Mak wore her gold and emeralds on casual outings, without thought. That rat Adil wanted these things, these emeralds, her money, maybe even her house. Not her, he had never wanted her. She took out the brooch, turning it over and over, watching the glinting specks of light. He wanted the shiny stuff? All right, then. She would give it to him.
The stiff tudung structure and the snug under-scarf still remained in place, like a pupa casing on a hatching blowfly, and Farah ripped them both off, massaging the mark the band left on her forehead. She shook her hair open, flinging it from side to side. She imagined herself at the Tina Turner concert, the one her Ayah hadn’t let her go to as a teen. She switched on the music system and let the music roll over her in waves.
She bundled up her hijab and pushed it in the dustbin, shoving it in when it overflowed. She walked into the shower, a scrubbing loofah working up lather, warm water scalding Adil off her skin.
Why you have to work I’ll never know, her assistant Chun Hwa said to her on long days like today. In your place I would go to spa and vacation every weekend, go shopping in the afternoon and parties at night. Farah tried to keep her smile intact, You’re not me and I’m not you. If she were Chun Hwa, she wouldn’t have had to marry the son of her Ayah’s childhood friend. She would have got a divorce if she asked the court for it. She would have been younger, prettier, more free, and she wouldn’t have stuck to wearing her tudung to please her dead Ayah. Better fatherless than daughter to such an Ayah. Don’t talk loudly, Farah, don’t laugh. Cover your head, you shameless girl.
Turning the shower to scalding hot, she let the water wash over her.
She kept sending him more money, to Bruno Guobadia aka Adil in his fake British account, kept adding the numbers of her loss in her notebook. She sent him smilies, more pictures.
It needed time, but turned out easier than she’d imagined.
Once she had figured out his identity, she had only to wait for a few things — for the right time to send Chun Hwa away with a glowing recommendation to a private company with better hours, far from her current office, and for Sofia to go on her Hari Raya leave after taking care of all her gardening instructions — getting the areas around the trees at the Kenny Hill bungalow dug up to air the roots; and a large, deep compost pit. Farah had also begun working out, especially her arms and back. She’d taken a few lessons at the range, making many a male colleague smile an indulgent smile at her shots. She let them, laughed at herself with them on some evenings.
She found a way to draw him to her, to come to the bungalow at Bukit Tunku. As a student, he worked odd jobs when the money he fleeced out of women ran out, so she disguised her voice as a man (she had loved that week of playing with a voice changer to find something non-creepy, without echoes) and got him to come down for a discreet job, with his laptop. They needed a hidden surveillance system at the bungalow — someone had told ‘him’ Bruno could do it. Farah loved being ‘him,’ the ‘estate manager.’ She wanted to hang on to the device just for that sound — a voice people would take seriously. He’d been warned — breathe a word of this to another, and the project would disappear. She’d offered him money, lots of it. He liked the shiny stuff.
Two months now since Hari Raya Aidalfitri. Soon it would be time for her forty-seventh birthday, then New Year. Then, a few months later, goodbye KL, goodbye home, goodbye hijab. Could she fly away from all this, leave it all behind?
She drove back to the Bukit Tunku bungalow, her new home. Mak would have been happy to see her here, start discussing plans for renovation, but this wasn’t how she’d pictured living with ‘Adil.’ She drove in through the big gates and saw the enormous white house with its sloped red roofs loom ahead, and held back a sigh. For the millionth time, she went over everything in her head.
She’d left the door open and called out to him to come in. She wanted to shoot at him part-by-body part, talk to him, ask questions, answer them. Make him cry out, plead for mercy.
But that would involve too much noise, not to mention a lot of blood spatters, difficult to clean. She shot him without warning as he appeared at the living room door, a clean and silent bullet through the head. Used her Ayah’s rifle, the one he had fitted with a silencer when he went bird shooting on the sly. Her grandfather had taught her to aim at a specific part of a boar’s body, the magic circle of its heart.
She wrapped the body in the old carpet laid out for Adil’s welcome, and hauled him into the cart she’d kept ready. She’d made preparations in the spare basement room for his arrival. In the end, it took less than an hour. She’d made a ramp on which to take the cart so she could slide him in to the large old drum in which they stored pickles in her grandmother’s time. That acid was the tricky part — gathering so much of it without raising suspicion.
But she had figured it all — tracking him, gun, voice change, acid, drum, compost pit — ticking one bullet point after another from her checklist, just the way at work she timed the molting stages of larvae, kept track of temperature, soil conditions and determined the time of death of a decaying corpse. The police depended on her for that Post Mortem Interval. Their investigations sometimes hinged on that one thing.
Two days after the Hari Raya Aidilfitri, she had drained the stinking brown acid sludge, poked in it with a stick to make sure everything had melted away. She’d separated his bony bits and the dental work that hadn’t, before pouring the sludge into the compost pit, and layers of the vegetables and vegetable peels she’d been gathering in her fridge. Greens and browns, greens and browns, and some lime with each layer. Topped the lot with chicken manure, covered it with soil, added leaves and grass, more lime, more soil.
She had removed her messages to him the best she could, deleted her pictures from the hard disk of his laptop, and deleted the ones she could risk from his Facebook. She’d kept his account live, hadn’t dared access it or delete it for fear of falling into any traps — she’d learned how to disguise her IP address now, but still.
She had taken a hammer to the laptop late at night in the basement so no one would hear her, and scattered its remains in a dozen different places. She’d ground up his bones and watch using her grandmother’s mortar and pestle, burnt his clothes, scattered the ashes and dust at Port Dickson on multiple late night drives. She’d washed down her kitchen, the spare room, the bathroom, the living room, gone over each surface the way she knew her colleagues in forensics would, inch by laborious inch, missing nothing.
But she had no way of knowing if he had other pictures of her in other hard drives, in an online back up. Had someone already gone through those, looking for him? What if he had told a friend about a job at this address? What if one of her neighbors or a passer-by had seen him walk in? No one would forget seeing a black man in this area. What if some one got to Chun Hwa or Jaden?
She scanned the papers every day, but found nothing of interest. No word from Sofia, who now took care of Farah’s Tropicana bungalow, of anything out of the ordinary. The housekeeper only said that Mak’s tabby had returned, a few kittens in tow.
She stepped out of the garage. Out in the garden at her compost pit under the trees, new grass had begun to grow, and weeds. She walked out, smelling the moist air, listening to the distant traffic noises.
On the grass, she noticed a speck of metallic green in the last light of the afternoon sun. The thorax of a Chrysomya rufifacies. One, two, three, more, all sitting there, sunning themselves, wringing their forelegs, so much like hands, as blowflies do. So beautiful, their wings, gossamer-bright in the sun.
She heard them under the earth, the rove beetles, the Staphylinidae digging and sifting away beneath the soil, the ants burrowing their way in, the coffin flies, Megaselia scalaris, digging towards that layer of buried ‘Adil’ sludge to lay their eggs. The carrion beetle, and the carpet beetle buzzed at the edge of the garden, waiting their turn.
She heard the scratchy sounds of a million minuscule feet. She heard them all, individually, breathing, eating, mating, defecating, laying eggs. The noises went with her as she walked off, tickling, scratching, insistent.
She unlocked the large main door and went inside.