Fiction | Issue 1 (April 2023)

Hit and Run

Shih Li-Kow

I ran over a macaque on the highway to the beach the other day. I caught a flash of bared teeth, wild eyes, and human ears on a pale-faced baby clinging to its mother. I saw the candy-cane curl of the mother’s tail and her long nipples. Spooked, I checked my rear-view mirror. I had already sped too far ahead to see if their dead bodies bloodied the road. I must have imagined it all. I couldn’t have seen so much in that split second of impact.

Behind me, my daughter was strapped into her car seat. She had tired of asking “Mummy, why…” questions. She sucked her thumb and stared out the window, oblivious to omens and hazards. On the radio, Whitney Houston promised to always love us. And I thought of Nain; I always did when death, danger, or sudden beauty stirred up sediments of old feelings.

I took a few coins from a slot in the car door and flung them out the window. Nain had taught me this, to offer a few coins, some fruit, or an apology muttered aloud if nothing else was at hand to appease unseen spirits when we trespassed. She used to hide hairclips, cigarettes, and rolled-up ringgit notes in tree knots and hollows for good luck.

At an age when I was shedding the mundanities of school uniforms, multiple choice examinations, and music lessons, her eccentricities had seemed like feats of defiance to me. Kissing Nain was an act of bravery. Sex was a revolution. But what I imagined to be rebellion against convention was only empty bravado behind closed doors. In public, we skulked about like mice, behaving as though we were casual friends.

I was too self-centred to juggle an inconvenient love affair and the busyness of university and internship applications. Nain and I lasted seven months. I believed that our separation hurt her less than it did me. She was no stranger to pain. The few details she had let slip hinted at a difficult past: deaths in the family, dropping out of school, trouble with men. Her skin was already toughened by scars. I was just another superficial scratch.

I heard that she was back in her hometown of Sayong, far enough from where I lived that I could avoid it. I didn’t want to see the version of myself I could have become had we stayed together. News of her reached me through friends of friends. Mad Nain, they called her. Can’t blame her for going a little crazy after everything she’s been through, they said. She was a woman with a cursed star over her head; such bad luck she even lived when she tried to kill herself.

Yet I wanted to take Angie to her. When I was gritting my teeth through labour pains, I wished it was Nain’s hand I was holding for comfort. When I found out I was pregnant, I had to stop myself from calling her. During my wedding, light-headed from exhaustion and noise, I had searched in vain for her face in the crowd.

The exit to Sayong was one kilometre away.

I wanted to show her we were a mistake. We were magical together, but it couldn’t have lasted. We did the right thing. I did the right thing by walking away.

See, Nain, I would say. I made a daughter. We couldn’t have done this. Meet Noor Angelia. Isn’t she beautiful? See how I’ve hidden your name in hers. Are you happy for me?

I was sure she would love Angie. I also knew I would be a better mother with Nain. More spontaneous, more gregarious, more me. But one shouldn’t tempt fate by wanting too much. I had a good life. A correct and proper life with a combi oven, Pyrex cookware, yoga classes, and cats with belled collars. Annual holidays and weekend sex with the husband. A husband, by God. I had lovers who knew what to do and where to go, and friends who kept my confidences and offered diversions more sophisticated than the clumsy, tangled relationship with Nain.

I swerved left, cutting across double lines on the road towards the Sayong exit. The car behind me honked and passed in a fading scream.

I found Nain’s house, an old wooden building on stilts in an overgrown compound. A frangipani tree with a sarong tied around its trunk dropped yellow flowers and, in the driveway, a rusted car sagged on melted tyres. I parked a little distance away and kept the engine running.

Angie said, “Why are we stopping, Mummy?”

“I want to see if my friend is home.”

“Is your friend coming to the beach with us?”

“Maybe. If she wants.”

A figure passed behind a curtained window, too shadowy to see. A man came out onto the veranda, He was vaguely familiar and I watched him drape a bedsheet over a balustrade. He came down the steps, bare-footed, and kicked at something in the dirt. I recognised the movement of the foot splayed slightly outwards. It was Nain with hair cropped close to her head. She was gaunt and concave as if her flesh had been pressed out of her like a spent toothpaste tube.

I watched as she ducked under the house. She pulled down her shorts and squatted with her buttocks exposed to the tamped earth. She looked towards me over her shoulder and I held my breath. She couldn’t possibly see me through the dark, one-way tint of the car windows. Her face was much too old for her age and smudged with dark patches that could have been dirt or bruises. She urinated and I gasped in shock.

She pulled up her shorts and went back into the house. Crazy Nain. Mad Nain. That was what people called her. Heart pounding, I clenched my fist over a few coins. I was disgusted and ashamed. Deeply ashamed and flooded with guilt.

I wound down the window partway, enough for me to throw the coins out. I said, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry”

Angie chanted along, thinking it was a new game, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am sorry.”

A black dog came trotting down the road, a skin-and-bones stray with swinging teats. It sniffed my tyres, coming in and out view in the car’s side mirror. I thought of the knobs in Nain’s spine and the hard protrusion at its base like the stub of an animal’s tail. She had grey streaks in her hair and her thighs were thin and loose-skinned, no longer familiar. Her fingernails were grimy, her feet were crusted with dirt. I told myself my eyes were fooling me. I couldn’t have seen all that in less than half a minute, especially not through my tears.

I said, “Let’s get to the beach, Angie.”

“Where’s your friend?”

“She’s not home.”

I told myself I didn’t need to hold my breath. There was no price to pay. Nain and I were only together for a few short months which couldn’t have meant much.

I revved the engine and the black dog skittered away from the car. I watched it run under Nain’s house and sniff the patch of piss she left behind. I drove away, relieved that I had not run over the dog. I probably would have driven off even if I had.

Shih-Li Kow is the author of a short story collection, Ripples and Other Stories and a novel, The Sum of Our Follies. Her work has appeared in Quarterly West, Mud Season Review, Short Fiction Journal, The Temz Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2023.