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The Plague Puller

Stopping by the canal to piss, and only a third of his way back to the House of Death, Ah Keng found his friend Leung, dead of the cholera. He recognized his oldest friend immediately, even in the darkness; even in this state. Leung’s sickness-shriveled body lay a few feet from brackish water, pallid face upturned towards the moon.

Leung. It was really Leung.

Ah Keng had been steadying himself on a tree trunk. Now, he found it not steady enough: he slid to squat in dry grass; slammed a fist into soil, then again, then again.

Bastards, cowards, dogs—Leung’s so-called friends had clearly tried to roll him into the canal, but they’d put neither back nor heart into the job. They’d just left him here, for the buffalos and buffalo-herds to find. No care for his body, nor for his ghost.

Ah Keng brushed a tender hand across his friend’s face. Leung’s once-lovely eyes were half-open, his once-full lips shrunken back in a sickly cholera-grin, and his copper ring—a relic from better days—hung loosely around one withered, death-stiffened finger.

Keng had hoped they would meet again, but never like this.

“I’m so sorry, brother,” he said, his voice parched as the soil. “I wasn’t there when you needed me. But I’m here now. I won’t leave you.”

That whole evening, Ah Keng had been sour and full of curses. He’d cursed the coffin-makers for dispatching him to the distant pauper’s hospital. He’d cursed the mortuary attendants for their lack of suitable passengers. And above all, he’d cursed his ankle; his accident; his own poor fate after eighteen arduous years in Singapore.

But now, as he worked his arms under Leung’s shoulders and braced his unsteady left leg against a tree trunk; as he dragged Leung gently upslope to the waiting rickshaw, Ah Keng was grateful. “I’m glad I came this way, brother,” he said, as he hoisted Leung into the rickshaw-seat and brushed dirt from his friend’s filthy, tattered shirt. “I’m glad I found you. Thank you for calling me here. Please don’t hurt me. I only want to help.”

The dead were strange and often dangerous, but sometimes, they would protect you. Why else would a man sleeping next to a cholera-victim not succumb while every man in the next rickshaw-house died vomiting and shitting? Ah Keng waited for some telltale sensation signifying favor or malice, but none came.

“Brother?” he called to the trees. He waited in silence a few moments. Then, he put up the rickshaw-hood to give Leung’s corpse some privacy, picked up his rickshaw-shafts, and set off at his well-practiced limp.

Ah Keng pulled his rickshaw past the old, dense foliage of the Muslim burial ground, where the Malay sultans rested. Many of their subjects were buried there; Arabs and Indians, too. He heard them sometimes, whispering and singing in languages he did not speak, save the occasional word or phrase. But tonight, their spirits were silent. Only the insects sang.

Ah Keng turned right onto Victoria Street, where crumbling rickshaw-houses crouched beneath tall trees. Here too, it was quiet. None of the usual late-night sounds of men laughing, boasting, and lamenting over a shared supper or a game of cards. Halfway down the block, he stopped in front of a house. Its front door hung ajar: a dark, gaping mouth. Inside, the common area was deserted. No men, no belongings—no rickshaws out front, either. Nothing but lingering joss smoke.

Ah Keng looked to the next house: also deserted. Two houses over, a trio of unfamiliar men squatted on the verandah, tense and whispering. Leung’s death had spooked the entire street.

“Brother, are you here?” he whispered to the rickshaw-house’s shadowed interior, loudly as he dared. “It’s me, Ah Keng. I’ve come to take you home.”

The three men quieted, staring warily at Ah Keng, trying to discern who or what sat in his hooded rickshaw on this rainless, windless night.

Then, a light breeze brushed Ah Keng’s chest, and incense-smoke tickled his nostrils. His skin prickled—back, calves, and arms—as soft, supple footsteps approached unseen. He felt the weight shift slightly in his rickshaw, like fruit in a gunny sack, and he knew that Leung had come.

“Oh,” he breathed. “I’m so glad I found you, brother. I hope you didn’t have to wait long. Just sit in my rickshaw and rest. I’ll take you someplace better.”

They set off past the wary trio, who thankfully did no more than stare. All the way down the block, Ah Keng whispered to Leung: that he was safe, that he didn’t need to fret. The dead liked to be soothed, to be spoken to like children—especially if they’d been abandoned.

They took a left onto Arab Street, where crumbling tenements gave way to shuttered shops and godowns. A tired-looking boy squatted by an unyoked bullock-cart, his cigarette-ember glowing like a tiny lantern. Ah Keng met his gaze a moment; kept on pulling, kept on whispering.

At the intersection, he turned right onto North Bridge Road. The wide thoroughfare still crackled with life: the red clay road was lit in pale electric patches, and oil lamps blazed in the windows and verandahs of shophouses. Men—and a few women—dawdled beneath the awnings. Ah Keng stood stationary a moment, catching his breath as two rickshaws hurried past, followed by a trotting horse-gharry.

“You remember this road, don’t you, brother?” he said over his shoulder to Leung. “You must have pulled up and down it ten thousand times. This time, you don’t need to pull. Just rest. I’ll pull you.”

Ah Keng pulled Leung past off-duty shopkeepers and still-working street hawkers with wares balanced on shoulder-poles; past still-open shops selling wine and spirits; past loudly-laughing Europeans stinking of alcohol. Always, he was aware of the wide tram-tracks, their wires strung overhead from streetlight to streetlight. The trams didn’t run at this hour, but he always expected their frightful clatter. Even after five years, he couldn’t forget their terrible speed—bullock-cart-toppling; rickshaw-wrecking; bone-snapping.

The fear lingered, like the pain and the opium.

But Ah Keng stopped himself from slipping further into dark thoughts. “I’m so grateful to you, brother. You saved me, after my accident. I have never forgotten. Thank you, brother. Thank you. You’re the best of friends.” He spoke to soothe Leung’s ghost, but also to soothe himself. Sometimes, the dead mirrored your emotions. They could hurt you: a bullock-cart turning clumsily out of nowhere, an upturned nail in the street. It was best not to upset them.

He pulled Leung another mile, past the European town’s tall, pale buildings, past churches and hotels, and past the police station, where Keng pulled as fast as his ever-aching ankle allowed. Even though some constables knew the House of Death, pulling corpses was forbidden—to say nothing of cholera-corpses. Thankfully, no police accosted Ah Keng tonight, and they came unbothered to the river, and the old bridge that spanned it.

Crossing, as always, was an ordeal. Iron wheels met iron bridge, and Ah Keng’s rickshaw-shafts—really, his entire rickshaw—juddered violently in his calloused grip. Like Keng himself, the rickshaw was old, and thanks to his poorly-healed ankle, he pulled it too slow. He always felt bad for his passengers going over this bridge, even if they were no longer living.

Halfway across the bridge, Ah Keng had to pause. He set his rickshaw-shafts down and rested his burning hands on his hips. He gulped salty river-air into opium-scalded lungs, and coughed violently as heat rose from his sweat-drenched shoulders.

All around them, the darkened river was alive with lamp-lit wooden boats. Men called out, crashing and complaining as they hefted gunny sacks between boat and shore. Keng smelt the smells of the city’s heaving, beating heart: spice and sweat, river-water and bullock dung. And something else too, wafting in from the harbor, or perhaps from memory—ocean wind and steamship smoke.

“Remember, brother?” Ah Keng grinned, turning to face Leung. “When we first came south to Nanyang? How it felt to stand on the ship deck? The salty breeze and the smell of coal? We thought for certain that we’d make our fortunes here in Singapore. Become big towkays. No need to walk: someone else would pull us.”

And then: Keng felt a flash of hot anger—sudden; foreign—followed by a deep, scouring pain, as though a dozen cold needles jabbed at his liver, lungs, and heart. He’d misspoken. His melancholy had drawn Leung’s ghost into sorrow; into rage.

“No, no—listen to me, Leung. It’s alright. Don’t fret. You don’t need to walk. I’ll pull you. I’ll pull you, brother.” He repeated himself, again and again, pleading as gently as he could. “Just rest in my rickshaw. Let me pull you home. Please.”

Behind Leung, two rickshaws bumpily followed each other onto the bridge. The first came fast, pulled by a young man with confidence and strong calves. The second was slower, pulled by an older man with a familiar face. As he approached, he slowed to a near-walk, and nodded a greeting to Ah Keng. Annoyed at the delay, the man’s passenger—a European? No, a Chinese towkay, dressed in European finery—craned his neck, frowning as he studied the halted, hooded rickshaw; the pale corpse slumped within.

“We’ll go now, brother. I’ll take you home. I’ll take you home,” Keng said, repeating it like a prayer as he picked up the shafts and urged his heart to calm.

To be bothered by police constables; to lose Leung amidst the city’s clamor—it would be disastrous. They’d take Leung away and cast his body unceremoniously into a cholera-grave. Leung’s spirit would be lost—worse, it would be ravenous, angry, ever-wandering: a hungry ghost.

Ah Keng could think of nothing worse. He may as well have left Leung where he found him. And so he pulled, sturdily and smoothly as he could, all the while whispering soothing words to Leung until he felt the chill subside; the needles withdraw; the frenzied anger fade.

“I’ll take you home,” he said, again and again, as they crossed into Chinatown, where North Bridge Road became South Bridge Road and the House of Death waited among so many crowded houses of the living.

• • • •

Six streets past the river, Ah Keng found himself detouring onto Hokkien Street. He hadn’t intended it. His whispered, homeward chant had led the way, and his feet had followed. He pulled Leung past hawkers cooking porridge, soup, and dumplings over paraffin stoves; past men eating and laughing with exhausted liveliness. Some of them peered briefly at Keng’s passenger, but they didn’t look any closer than that.

He pulled up in front of their old home: 33 Hokkien Street. The lucky-numbered lodging-house where they’d first lived all those years ago; where they’d slept back-to-back on wooden boards, and sometimes closer than that. The years had been cruel to the house, too: its paint was cracked and peeling, its window-shutters starting to rot.

A rickshaw-puller Ah Keng knew squatted on the five-foot-way in front of the house, picking at a bowl with his chopsticks. Lam was his name, a fellow Guangdong kinsman. His eyes narrowed at Ah Keng’s approach.

“There’s no-one here for you today,” Lam said, looking away. As though Ah Keng had ceased being a kinsman the day he started pulling corpses. As though he had never lived in this house; as though they’d never pooled money for a celebratory chicken and a bottle of rice wine, back when they thought their meager day-earnings augured greater things. But Ah Keng felt the slightest breeze on his back and knew that Leung’s ghost was beginning its gentle peregrination of the lodging-house, and he kept silent and held onto his rickshaw-shafts. He did not want to agitate Leung.

“Go away,” Lam hissed, and when Ah Keng did nothing of the sort, Lam finally looked to the rickshaw and glimpsed the shape slumped in its seat. Lam’s eyes widened and he yelped, toppling his supper as he leapt to his feet.

An unfamiliar young man stepped out from the house’s candlelit interior, his face hard and hostile—so many new men now, even as Singapore grew more crowded and costly with each passing moon; brothers fighting tooth and nail to survive. As Ah Keng girded himself against the prospect of violence and cursed himself—nostalgic fool, opium-sotted dog—he felt it happen. The ghostly barbs that signified Leung’s agitation; the rushing wind of sudden, spectral movement.

Candles in the entranceway flickered and guttered out. Lam let out a stifled cry, and the hard-faced man cursed, scrambling away from the doorway. Two more men emerged from the darkness, drawn by the commotion.

“I’m sorry, Leung,” Ah Keng said softly. “I thought maybe you’d want to see this place again. Maybe I wanted to see it as well. Things weren’t always bad when we stayed here, were they, Leung? Even when times were hard.”

It was true. Life had been hard since the moment they stepped off the steamer from China, but there had been good moments. Moments of celebration and comfort. They’d comforted each other, back then: two young men so far from home; far from family and the prospect of marriage. Keng thought about those good memories, putting the later, painful ones out of his mind. Even when things had been difficult, they’d had good times.

“I’m here, brother. I’m outside. Remember me? Let me pull you home. Please. Come back to me, brother. I miss you so.”

And as though remembering late-night laughter and the soft embrace of muscled bodies; how coarse mouths and calloused hands could be so gentle, Leung’s spirit returned, without jaggedness; without rancor. Ah Keng felt a caress, like tall grass against his flank. The remaining candles flickered once more, and Keng felt the weight shift behind him.

Without another word to the gathering crowd, he wheeled the rickshaw away. “Stay with me, brother,” he said. “Please. I’ll never forget you. I’ll not abandon you. I swear. I’ll take you home now. To the House of Death.”

• • • •

Onwards, then—straight past the mosque’s twin minarets; a right turn at the Hindu temple’s painted pagoda. Left on Trengganu Street: bustling and red-lit with calligraphed lanterns, teeming with pullers and passengers, the shouts of drunkards, and the laughter of Japanese women and Guangdong-sisters. The dead often wanted to tarry here, but Keng could not allow that—he plodded determinedly through traffic and turned again: left onto Sago Street, thick with palm-powder fumes; then right onto Sago Lane, crowded with resting rickshaws and rickshaw-men.

So many faces he knew, but like Lam, they all avoided his gaze. Since Ah Keng’s accident—since he’d become too slow, indebted, and mired in pain and opium to pull anyone but the House of Death’s passengers—the living shunned him. Corpses sat in his rickshaw now, and spirits followed his footsteps like stray dogs.

And so, as he did every night, Ah Keng pulled his rickshaw up to his employer’s doorstep and gently put down the shafts.

From outside, the House of Death was like any other house: two stories, long and narrow. But within was a stopping-place between mortuary and grave; between this world and the next. In the daytime, the air was full of sawdust and the sound of coffin-makers at their work. At night, it smelled of joss-smoke and death-flowers. Most of the time, there were corpses. Ah Keng’s passengers: poor Guangdong kinsfolk, men and women who could not otherwise afford burial; who would otherwise be abandoned to a lonely eternity of restless, ravenous wandering.

But there were no bodies tonight, and that was the for the best. The House of Death’s benefactors and coffin-makers could never learn that Ah Keng had brought Leung here. For even they were afraid of the cholera.

“Please, Leung,” Ah Keng said, putting down the rickshaw shafts. “I need a few moments. Wait for me. Please.”

Quietly, he entered, hobbling straight to the well at the back. He was parched enough that he nearly raised the bucket to his lips, but he felt an unseen force tugging urgently at him. Leung, protecting him.

“Thank you, brother. Thank you,” Ah Keng said, lowering the bucket; using it to wash himself clean. He went to the kitchen, where he gulped down hours-old tea—the coffin-makers rightly distrusted unboiled water, but they did not pull rickshaws for hours in the heat. Once he’d sated his thirst, Keng snuck carefully upstairs to his darkened lodging-room. From his pillow-box he retrieved his opium pipe and a bit of opium, a clean shirt, and both of his eating-bowls. He returned to the kitchen and portioned the meal they’d left for him—rice, fried with lard, scallions, and cabbage—between the two bowls.

He sat out by the rickshaw and ate with Leung. Then, he went once more into the House of Death, kneeling by the altar for favor and strength. He took a hardy spade for digging, a piece of stone for a grave-marker, and some joss-sticks, and put them in the back of the rickshaw beside Leung and the clean shirt he would be buried in.

“Ready, brother?”

But as Ah Keng picked up his rickshaw-shafts and took his first few limping steps, he felt Leung’s body move once more; heard those supple footfalls next to his own. The weight on his arms and back was suddenly lightened: Leung was pulling with him.

“I appreciate it, brother,” Ah Keng smiled gratefully.

They had a long journey ahead. Back the way they came, and then some—six miles north and west, past the pauper’s hospital and out to the countryside. Six miles, on top of the six he’d already pulled that day. He hadn’t pulled a rickshaw that far since the accident. But it would be worth it—there was space out there: green, rolling hills; a peaceful, beautiful burial ground established by old brothers and uncles from Guangdong. Leung would be among kin. It was almost like going home.

Neither of them would ever return to China. Neither could afford a fancy tombstone, a lavish funeral, or a band of mourners; not like the rich towkays they’d hoped to become. But Ah Keng could pull Leung out to a quiet hillock before the sun rose and the opium-sweats started. He could dig his beloved friend a grave with the strength of his arms and back—the same way they’d always lived. Leung would be buried, prayed over, given offerings. He would not be abandoned. He would not be alone.

Ah Keng pulled his rickshaw past resting bodies and vehicles, down narrow lanes and dark roads until they came to the city’s edge, where buildings gave way to the mosquito-thick jungle night. The rickshaw’s iron wheels juddered, and Leung’s body jostled in the back with the spade that would bury him.

They had miles to go yet. But Ah Keng and Leung walked together, every step of the way.

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Manish Melwani

Manish Melwani is a Singaporean writer of strange and monstrous fictions that skulk the borderlands of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He attended the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in 2014, and then completed a master’s thesis at NYU entitled Starports, Portals, and Port Cities: Science Fiction and Fantasy in Empire’s Wake.

He’s spent much of the last few years working on a series of supernatural stories that take place over several centuries of Singapore history. This tale is one of them.

You can find him on the web at manishmelwani.com, and read his work in Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, and in the Shirley Jackson Award-winning Shadows and Tall Trees 7.