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Fiction

A Moonlit Savagery

My eyes snap open at night. I float out of the tunnel under the concrete wall and settle on the roof of the abandoned hostel. The starry chaos of Yaowarat stretches before me like rows of crowded teeth. It’s tourist season, and my belly aches with hunger at the sight of all the farangs: slurping shark fin soup in restaurants, being measured for crocodile skin suits in tailor shops, ducking into tuk-tuks with their sunburnt arms around a local girl or two.

But I can’t eat any of them unless they fall asleep within three hundred meters of the hostel I’m bound to. The locals are aware of my presence and steer clear of my soi, but the farangs who visit Bangkok know nothing about ghosts like me. I crouch on the rusty DUSIT SKY HOSTEL sign and wait for a farang to appear.

I smell him before I see him: intestines coated sweetly with coconut milk, clumps of green papaya dissolving in stomach acid, everything numbed with flakes of red chili peppers so spicy, they must taste bitter. A young farang in a t-shirt and sweatpants steps into my soi, his face covered by a dark mask with holes for his eyes, the milky skin of his arms peppered with chestnut brown freckles. He squats in the moonlight and pulls out a spray paint can from his backpack.

I float down behind him and watch the goosebumps ripple over the back of his neck. He’s so lost in spray painting my wall that he doesn’t notice the sudden chill in the air, or how thin ropes of saliva drip down his shoulder. My mouth waters at the thought of eating him—should I gut him from the throat, or slurp the good stuff at the bottom first?—but then I smell the lemongrass digesting in his stomach, and laugh. Trust a farang to eat the herbs used in soup stock.

He whirls around, his eyes as round and green as peeled grapes. “Who’s there?” he says, his voice steadier than I expect.

I planned to wait until he’s drowsy before I pounce, but now that he’s aware of my presence, I don’t mind gobbling him up sooner. I float into the moonlight to show him the full horror of what I am: five feet of white skin and glistening teeth, a ghost woman with long hair that flies out in veins as black as soy sauce. I want to pierce him with bright terror, to scare the consciousness out of him and eat him after he faints. This is what I do to stubborn humans who won’t fall asleep by themselves.

The farang stumbles back. His outstretched arms brace his fall and smear a wet-paint trail down the wall of the hostel. The imprint of his chattering teeth is clear against the fabric of the mask, and I stare at him for what feels like hours, willing his eyes to flutter shut so that I can dig into him—but he doesn’t faint.

“Oh,” he breathes, once he stops hyperventilating. “Oh.”

And then, impossibly: “Cool.”

• • • •

His name is Khun Sebastian. He’s backpacking across Southeast Asia to see the world and to make a name for himself as an artist.

“I’m from a place called Mississauga, which is boring and sleepy as hell,” he says, and sprays a black outline around the face of the woman he’s painting. His index finger trembles on the nozzle of the spray paint can, either from residual fear or the Red Bull he’s been sipping all night. “It’s full of people who say I can’t do shit. My parents don’t believe in my art. Even my friends applied for jobs after college because they’re too scared to go after their dreams. Everyone said I was crazy to ditch everything and go travel. ‘You’re throwing your life away, Seb,’ they said. ‘You’re supposed to be earning money, not spending it.’ Well, I’ll show them. I’ll show all of them.”

I piece together what he says thanks to the translation app on his phone and the bits of English I picked up in the decades since tourists started flooding Bangkok. It’s hard to focus on his words when I’m close enough to smell his intoxicating natural scent, a salty flavor with an undercurrent of something aromatic, like basil or thyme. I want to stuff him into my mouth right now, but I’ll turn into ash if I eat a human who’s awake. So I lace my hands over my rumbling stomach and fantasize about Mississauga instead, which sounds like the perfect place for me, a land where humans sleep all the time, their stomachs full of roast beef and kale salad and other interesting flavours that might be good to taste.

The clink of the spray paint can against the ground jolts me from my thoughts. The painting is done now, and I gasp when I see that the woman has long black hair and wears a white nightgown. She kneels in a blade of moonlight, her small hands folded in her lap, her eyes like black marbles pressed into the pale dough of her face. The resemblance is unmistakable, and an unfamiliar heat washes over me at the thought of Khun Sebastian working all night to paint me.

Khun Sebastian peels off his mask. His wet brown curls and easy smile make my insides seize up with want. He snaps off his glove and cups my cheek with his hand, his fingertips slick with sweat. I shiver. I have never experienced the touch of a human that wasn’t their knuckles cracking against my jaw or their feet cycling against my chest to kick me off, and the sensation is enough to drive me mad with hunger.

“So what’s your deal?” His breath is a heady mist in my face, something I can almost taste. “Are you stuck to this wall or something?”

“มีแต่น้ำลายของแม่มดที่ทำให้ฉันหลุดจากที่นี่ได้,” I say. Only the saliva of a witch can free me from here. Ghosts like me sleep in witches during the day and supply her with our powers, then come out at night to feed. My witch used to own Dusit Sky Hostel, but shut it down after all the gutted carcasses of the guests I hunted destroyed its reputation. She quit being a witch, too, and bound me to the tunnel under the wall, which has been my host ever since.

“Uh, say that again into the app,” Khun Sebastian says, and holds the phone up to my face.

After I tell him about the tunnel and the witch, he sets the translation app back to English to Thai. “To be honest,” he says, “I knew about you before I came down this street. I heard a rumour about a phi pop who haunts an old hostel in Bangkok’s Chinatown, but didn’t believe it until I saw you with my own eyes. I still pumped myself full of Red Bull, though, just in case.”

His smile, a loose, playful thing, brings tears to my eyes. This is the longest I’ve spoken to anyone since I was abandoned, and I forgot how good it can feel.

His face quivers. “Poor ghost,” he whispers, and wipes a tear off my cheek with his thumb. “You must’ve been lonely for a long time.”

I lean into his touch and graze my teeth against his wrist. He chuckles, his heartbeat slow and strong, not afraid of me at all. “I’ll come back tomorrow night, how about that?”

“ได้,” I mutter against his skin, already dizzy with fantasies of splitting his ribs open.

• • • •

Humans are as common as rice, but this one is special. I haven’t met anyone who can stay in my presence for so long without screaming their throats raw, without their crotches growing dark with urine.

Over the next few weeks, Khun Sebastian visits me every night. When there’s no one to hunt, we sit on the roof of the hostel and watch the neon activity buzzing in the distance: men chatting up bored-looking girls outside massage parlours, taxi drivers honking at each other with homicidal impatience, tourists in elephant print pants haggling with street vendors over the price of counterfeit goods.

When a prey sleeps within hunting range, Khun Sebastian lingers in the shadows and watches me gut them open one by one: the farang who passes out in the parking lot of a music bar after a night of heavy drinking and running his hands up the tattooed thighs of bar girls; the tour guide who falls asleep during a foot massage, her intestines tasting of sugar and onions, likely from the durian she must’ve eaten before she closed her eyes for the last time; the homeless local man who should’ve known better than to stumble into the hostel from an unlocked back door and nap on the frayed bamboo sheet in the lobby. I ache for him as I tear into him—his loneliness and feral existence is familiar—but I exist to eat, so eat is what I do.

“I love your savagery,” Khun Sebastian says, when we lie on the roof of the hostel after one month of knowing each other. He’s sketching me again. “All great artists have subjects they paint over and over again, and I feel like you’re that for me. You’re my muse.”

“Muse?” I say. Another English word to add to my growing list.

“Yeah.” He slides me his sketchbook. His drawings have gotten starker and more vicious over time, and I recoil from all the images of me with claws for hands or a mouth full of bloody teeth. These depictions are closer to who I am than the painting of the woman on her knees with her hands folded in her lap, but old anxieties—I’m a monster, I’m not good enough—still shoot out of me like poisonous snakes when I see them.

“Hey, don’t be like that.” Khun Sebastian grabs my wrist. He leans towards me, his cheek bleached by moonlight, his eyes so green. “I told you you’re my muse. That means something, okay?”

“Why,” I say, my lips trembling around the foreign pronunciation, “you not afraid me?”

He smiles at my use of English. “Why?” His fingers graze up my arm and leave trails of heat across my skin. “Because you’re beautiful.”

I stare at his mouth. Would pressing my lips to his and tasting one bead of saliva be enough to kill me?

He yawns. He slides his hand off me and glances at the orange dot glowing on the horizon, the first sign of dawn. Roosters crow, and the last of the street food carts are folding up. It’s strange how the place you lived in all your life can look so different through the eyes of someone else: the tiled roofs covered by blue tarp are shabbier than I remember, and the lanterns hanging above the garages where the Thai-Chinese families sell herbs and candy look more grey than red.

“I should get back.” Khun Sebastian rises to his feet. The early sunlight outlines him in gold and makes his hair light up like a halo. “I’m off to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow, by the way. That’s always been the plan.”

I swallow my grief. He climbs down the roof and looks up at me. His smile lacks its usual lightheartedness, and for a moment he looks older and more world-weary, which makes me wonder if there’s a side of him I haven’t seen yet.

“You can come with me, as long as you promise not to follow me to bed.” He winks at me, probably means it as a joke. We both know I can’t follow him anywhere. I’m stuck here forever.

Still, I fly after him as he blurs away on his motorbike. My energy evaporates as the sun rises, but I strain forward until the magic that binds me to the hostel hurls me back and my skin starts to hiss in the sunlight. Khun Sebastian grows fainter behind the fumes of his motorbike, and then he turns a corner and is nowhere to be seen.

• • • •

The years after Khun Sebastian are difficult.

Every time I see the primal fear that spikes in my prey’s eyes before I slash them apart, I’m reminded of the one human who wasn’t afraid of me at all.

The moon becomes my only friend again, the one constant that’s always around when I wake up at night. Sometimes I stare at it and wonder if Khun Sebastian is still in Asia and looking up at the same one. And then I don’t need to wonder anymore.

One night, I see Khun Sebastian on a billboard near the entrance gate. SEBASTIAN MADDER RETURNS TO BKK, Sept 8—Oct 3, at Aatit Gallery, Saladaeng Soi 14. Images of his paintings flit across the screen, all of them raw and blazing with emotion like I remember, and still—my heart aches—featuring a woman with long black hair and dark gem eyes. I watch the billboard every night and burn every pixel of his face into my mind until he gets replaced by an advertisement for a new skin whitening cream.

He was in Bangkok but didn’t visit me. The devastation hits me harder than I expect, and I stay curled up in the tunnel for longer stretches of time after that.

How long does it take a ghost like me to waste away? Weeks? Months? I stay in the tunnel until my belly turns concave and my skin becomes as translucent as rice paper. But even when I hunt, each mouthful of viscera I gulp only serves as a reminder that I’m still here, still existing without Khun Sebastian.

Over time, more of Yaowarat gets torn down. Old cinemas and shops get replaced by condos, and bamboo scaffolding starts to crisscross around more buildings near where I sleep. I start to wake up regularly to a cacophony of drills and hammers, the noises of construction echoing deep into the night.

Eventually, Dusit Sky Hostel will be torn down, too. And without a new host to sleep in, I’ll crumble in the sunlight and scatter in the wind.

• • • •

Light pierces the slit between my eyelids. Tires crunch into my soi and heavy work boots stomp on the ground. Someone barks out instructions about wall removal, and I tuck myself deeper into the tunnel.

It’s happening. Dusit Sky Hostel is getting torn down. I keep the image of Khun Sebastian bright in my mind—I want my final thought to be of him splashing colours on my wall—and wait for my wall to be cracked open.

“Hey.” I smell salty skin, the aroma of herbs. “You still in there?”

I look up. Green eyes blink at me from above, and my breath dies in my throat.

I float out of the tunnel with a groan. My joints creak as I straighten out, my muscles not used to movement since I started hibernating for weeks at a time. I rub my eyes and glance down at my soi, where construction workers climb down a dump truck with tube steel under their arms. This must be what I heard earlier.

“Jesus, you look famished.” Khun Sebastian turns off his flashlight and looks me up and down. He’s much older than I remember, his brown hair now gelled back and streaked with grey. He wears a dress shirt with a popped collar and crocodile skin shoes that are pointy at the toes. Crinkles form around his eyes when he smiles, and his teeth are an unnatural shade of white. “It’s good to see you again, ghost.”

It hurts to look at him directly. I wonder if he’s a hallucination constructed by my mind to help me deal with the pain of his absence, but his stomach, drenched in lime juice and salty flakes of dried shrimp, smells too real for this moment to be an illusion. Hunger uncurls in my gut and my teeth start to grow, but Khun Sebastian doesn’t seem to notice.

“It’s a good thing I’m here.” He gestures at the bamboo poles that jut around the base of Dusit Sky Hostel, construction that took place while I slept. “Someone told me there was an old painting of mine on a hostel that’s getting renovated, so I flew in to collect it. And save you, too.”

We watch the workers enter the hostel and bolt the tube steel to the back of the painting, which Khun Sebastian explains will help anchor the bricks in place once the cutting of the wall begins. The painting of me on my knees has faded with age. Her eyes are two white holes on a vacant face and her smile has eroded into a wince.

“I got something for you,” Khun Sebastian says, and puts a hand on my back. I sigh at the warmth that ripples down my spine, but the comfort fades when I smell the foul metallic scent wafting out of a white Lexus sedan parked at the end of the soi.

“I can’t get human organs for obvious reasons, so this is the best I can do.” Khun Sebastian pops the trunk of the car and pushes me towards it.

Pig’s organs gleam on cubes of ice in an icebox. My stomach lurches—everything smells like rust, like spoiled blood—but I still lower my head over a heart and sink my teeth into the tough muscle. It tastes like iron and dirt, but this is a gift from Khun Sebastian, who has finally come back to see me. I slurp down a fat liver, which mushes easily under my tongue, and swallow its jellylike rot even as my throat convulses, every cell in my body urging me to throw it back up.

“I’m glad you like this.” Khun Sebastian’s breath is a caress on the back of my neck. I eat with as much stillness as I can, afraid that he’ll leave if I move too suddenly. “I want to ask you something, actually.”

The blue tint of the translation app glows on his phone. He holds it up to his face and tells me what I already pieced together from that billboard—how he’s a famous artist now and has exhibited his work all over the world.

“I have a hometown show in Mississauga in two days,” he says. “It’s not a big show, but it’s a show I worked all my life for, something that shows all the critics back home just how far I’ve come.” He closes the space between us and smiles a playful smile that makes it feel like no time has passed. “I want you at the show. You were there when I was hustling, you saw how it all happened. And you were my inspiration.”

Something inside me loosens like a blood clot in water. I think about my fantasies of Mississauga from long ago, how the organs of those sleeping humans must be as delicious as Khun Sebastian’s must be. I glance back at the tunnel, my mouth open around a question I don’t know how to ask.

Khun Sebastian chuckles. “Don’t worry, I’ll hire a witch to free you.”

I stare at him. “จริงหรือ?” Really?

“Of course. Give the Thais some money, and they’ll do anything.”

He curls his fingers around my knotted wrist, and this time when he smiles, I try to smile back.

• • • •

I travel to Canada inside a hole drilled in the painting’s tube steel frame. It’s dark when I float out again. Moonlight filters in from high dusty windows, and metal shelves full of spray paint cans rise tall on either side of me. Large sheeted canvases line the walls, and a violent discomfort twists through me when I pull off a sheet and see the portrait of a naked woman with long hair climbing out of a kiln of blood. Her breasts droop down her front like wilted eggplants, and her smile, a wide gap that starts from her ears, looks crazed.

My eyes burn. Is this still supposed to be me?

The front door creaks open. Khun Sebastian comes in with a bucket in each hand. I know they’re full of animal organs even before he flicks on the light. Bile gathers in the back of my mouth at the thought of having to eat them.

“Welcome to my storage unit,” Khun Sebastian says. I try to focus on his natural scent to cover up the heady rot of the animal organs, but he smells oddly stale and unfamiliar, like dust and cigarette butts instead of something I want to eat. “We’re in the outskirts of Sauga, so there’s nothing around for miles except asphalt and greenery. There’s no one for you to hunt, but I took care of that.”

He nudges a bucket towards me with his foot. The pig’s intestines look grey and rubbery, the pancreas a pale spongy thing that makes me cough up bile.

“What’s wrong?” Khun Sebastian tilts my chin up until I meet his gaze. The ceiling light hits his face at a harsh angle and makes his eyes look bulging and cruel, but then I blink and the moment is gone. “I thought you’d be hungry after a twelve-hour flight.”

“ฉันไม่หิวค่ะ,” I say. I’m not hungry.

He frowns, then takes out his phone. Instead of setting the app to translate Thai, he starts to translate his English for me instead. “I see you saw the paintings I’m exhibiting at the show.” He tugs another sheet off a canvas. I wince when I see the painting of the long-haired woman licking the wrinkled neck of a gutted farang man, both of them covered by blood vessels that sprout from the man’s rib cage like overgrown weeds. “You’re a massive hit, you know. My fans love you. They’ve been wondering about your identity for years, dissecting you like you’re the freakin’ Mona Lisa. ‘Who is she?’ they ask. ‘An ex-girlfriend? A Thai hooker?’ Just flooding me with questions, man. Which is good, since mystery is what keeps people talking.”

Khun Sebastian uncovers more canvases: a long-haired woman, naked again, sitting in the lotus position, the folds of her labia looking like a rose in bloom; the severed head of the same woman floating over a dark background, her bottom jaw unhinged and bright with needle-thin teeth; a woman reclined on velvety sheets, her hair tied up in a high glossy ponytail, her sabai wrapped tightly around her bleeding torso like a tourniquet, her lips pouty and pink.

Khun Sebastian taps a knuckle against the sabai. “I can already picture the reviews: a commentary on the lives of women from third world countries, or shameless shock art? What’s Sebastian Madder thinking this time?” He laughs, and the sound makes me want to retch more than the animal organs did. He points to something behind me. It’s the painting of the woman on her knees, except the colours are sharper now, and her nightgown is replaced by a translucent naked body so emaciated that the imprint of her intestines is visible under the shell of her ribs.

“I fixed it up to look like you right now.” Khun Sebastian’s smile looks less playful and more engineered, like he designed it to produce an effect in me just like he designed his art to stir up attention. “I think I’ll call it ‘A Moonlit Savagery.’ Pretty good, huh? Anyway, this is gonna be the centerpiece at the show. And that’s where you’ll come in.” He grabs a fistful of my nightgown and starts to lift it up. “We’ll show the centerpiece once night falls. When you wake up, get on your knees and pose like her. Then, when I lift the sheet, you’ll float out in a slow and sensual way, like you did when I first found you. Of course, you’ll also need to be naked when you emerge, to match the painting.”

No, no, no.

I made a mistake coming here.

I push him away, but his grip on my nightgown is tight. “Think of it as performance art.” Every syllable is a hiss of heat in my face. “People have been speculating about your identity for years, but no one guessed that you’re a ghost. It’ll be a real shocker when I reveal the truth. All my haters and doubters will be pissing their pants when they see you.”

“ฉันไม่อยากทำ,” I say. I don’t want to do this.

His eyes turn cold. “Speak English.”

A chill cuts me to the bone. I see, with unmistakable clarity, how foolish I’ve been, thinking he likes me for who I am when he only likes the idea of me, what I represent. What I can do for him.

“No,” I say, and shove him hard enough to break his hold on me.

Khun Sebastian stumbles back. His lips curve into an ugly smirk when he steadies himself. “You don’t have a choice, ghost. See this?” He taps at the tube steel behind the painting. “If I destroy this, you won’t have a place to sleep in once the sun comes out. I can leave this painting out in an open field and watch you scramble for shelter you won’t have. You’ll die. But that would be too cruel, don’t you think?” His eyes glint, the green too solid, too clear, like glass with nothing behind them.

Is this why he doesn’t fear me? Because the part of him that keeps out fear also keeps out love?

“You should be grateful.” His smile morphs into a snarl. “I saved you from that shithole you lived in and gave you a better life here. You can even become famous if you do what I say. So take off that nightgown and put on a show tomorrow night, yeah?”

After he drives away, I float to the window, where the sky burns red with dawn. He wasn’t lying: there really isn’t anything out here except highway roads, grassy fields, and the occasional cluster of trees. I fly back to the painting—my host now—and clamp my arms around its concrete body. I manage to lift it for a few seconds before I start to wobble. But even if the morning isn’t fast approaching and my limbs aren’t weakening, there aren’t any buildings around to hide the painting from Khun Sebastian’s tampering.

There isn’t anyone around for you to eat.

You should be grateful.

Put on a show tomorrow night, yeah?

I glance at the many versions of me that lean against the walls, none of them an accurate depiction of who I am.

My fingers curl into claws. There’s only one thing left to do, something I should’ve done a long time ago.

• • • •

Voices hum around me when I wake up the next night. I float out of the steel tube and blink in the darkness. The painting is covered under curtains, and the faint outlines of bodies move on the other side.

The humans here smell stale and bland, nothing like the interesting flavours I imagined myself enjoying in this part of the world. Maybe Khun Sebastian only smelled good back then because his stomach was full of Thai food.

“You’ll love it; the centerpiece will blow your mind.”

I hear Khun Sebastian’s voice to my left. Through a crack in the curtains, I see his hand slide down the small of a woman’s back. They speak too fast for me to catch all the words, but I piece together a conversation about doing a TV feature on the centerpiece. On me.

I retreat back to the wall and fold myself up. My heartbeat screams in my ears, but I force myself to stay still, to be as demure as the woman in the painting. I exist to eat, but it isn’t much of an existence if I can’t eat on my own terms.

So when Khun Sebastian peels back the curtains, I pounce.

Screams explode around us as I sink my teeth into his throat and drag all the way down to his bowels. His ribcage splinters open and coils of viscera spill onto the floor. His eyes bloom with silent rage and his knuckles smack against my jaw, but I keep shredding and gulping until he goes still for the last time.

Khun Sebastian tastes like wet cement and secondhand smoke, but I buzz with ecstasy all the same. In many ways, this is the most delicious last meal I can possibly have, and I laugh through my tears as I swallow the last of him and taste the ashes my body is crumbling into, laugh as I think of that moonlit farang and all the years I spent waiting for him to return.

Millie Ho

Millie Ho’s work is forthcoming from Lightspeed Magazine and also appears in Strange Horizons, Uncanny Magazine, Fireside Magazine, and others. She was a finalist for the 2019 Rhysling Awards and lives in Montreal. Find her at www.millieho.net and on Twitter @Millie_Ho.