I got the text message while waiting to pick my son up at school.
No, I am not one of those goonish parents who insist on creating a traffic jam outside the school gate just so the precious children don’t have to walk far to get their ride home. I was sitting on the edge of the drain outside the school fence, doobying on my Samsung, trying to make it show me the time even when it went idle, when I got the text message from an ex-colleague telling me Pelangi Hussein had passed away.
It was upsetting; those superheroes had told me they would personally escort her home. I stood on the shore worrying my prayer beads as they drifted on their raft, promising to reach Malaya on time. She had looked so frail, so thin, but for some reason I placed my confidence in them to take her home, where they had insisted she needed to go.
When I was growing up, my parents used to grouse at me about the rise of the Internet and social media tools. It was an age of wonder for them that information transferred across the globe so quickly.
Today, my nine-year-old son gets to hear me grouse about the rise of heroes, logic-defying feats, and the inevitable great clashes that arise as a result. It is an age of wonder wherein everything I and my peers grew up with in pop culture ephemera came true, if enough people dream of it.
It is also a wonderful time to be a cultural critic. Do you know how satisfying it is to say “the Great White American Suburbs have plunged themselves into a zombie apocalypse as their anxieties of consumerism have clearly overtaken them” and have it taken seriously? I even follow the Black Queens of Detroit on Tumblr (their electronic elite seized its operations in an amazing coup). That a shared imagination would come true—well, there’s space to witness all sorts of anxieties and dreams come true, too.
Nothing so exciting happened in Malaysia—Malaya now, I guess, since the indigenous nations of East Malaysia decided they were better off without us after all. We did get our wish of an information technology multimedia supercorridor. I don’t really know what it means; I just know how to use a computer. It does seem to have been a big deal though, for Che Det and his Vision 2020. Those of us not on the IT highway bandwagon, though? We keep plodding along. The ITMSC does not help me get my child to school and back safely.
The worst of what we feared, however, did not come to pass. Contrary to foreign correspondents’ impressions and the haranguing of politicians, racial riots did not tear the country apart. The rate of inter-racial marriage skyrocketed, though, and my generation waits with bated breath for the new post-racial age that our mixed babies would usher in, a true Malaysian race. Queer marriages also passed into law without a fuss, finding no real barrier in syariah courts or familial arguments. First world countries were surprised at this; none of us in the third world were. (Capitalism still exists, to the gnashing of many activists. Hope springs eternal.)
Hock Heng grinned when he spotted me. He hopped over the drain to the side I was sitting on nimbly, and sat down next to me. I put an arm around him and squeezed him tight. “Hey, Double-H, how was school?” (He was currently into spies and codenames.) His legs dangled into the drain, but I noticed that soon they would be long enough to touch the other side.
“It was okay.” He leaned against me. “What’re you reading?”
“Someone I know just died. Did I tell you about her? Pelangi Hussein?”
He frowned. “I dunnoooooo, you tell me so many things.”
He was right. Every day, between school and social media, he processed far more information than I ever had to in childhood. The PTA has been talking about instating deadzone times. I think we’ve been successful. I disagree with the kind of information my peers expose their kids to, but the deadzone times seem to relieve the kids.
“She was a colleague of mine when I used to work for NTV. You remember watching those old cartoons on NTV, right? The Saturday morning ones?”
He laughed. “Yeah! With the monkeys in space!”
Pelangi Hussein’s parents had been influenced by the American 70’s hippie era and I’m not sure they ever left that decade. Despite her unfortunate name, or perhaps because of it, Pelangi grew up an interminably cheerful person, a pretty woman everyone wanted to be seen with. So when she graduated from Mass Communications, it was natural she would go into the television business and eventually become a TV presenter. The surprising thing was that she became a newscaster, rather stick to her cushy pop veejay gig. I suppose everyone comes to the point where we want something a bit more challenging.
When I first met Pelangi, I thought she would be one of those people stuck in perpetual adolescence: always seeking, always only brimming with potential, manja and mature at turns. When she turned out to be a fairly resilient and astute personality, I was relieved, and then impressed. Here was a woman who went into Sarawak’s wilds to track the myth of Rajah Brooke’s secret treasure (when did we even have one of those?!) and then, barely taking a Raya break, was off reporting on the Penan revolution along the Kalimantan-Sabah border. Then it was back to Peninsular Malaya to cover the General Elections. She was pretty so everyone paid some attention; she was so articulate she made any complex situation understandable in everyday bahasa. It was slightly unfair but no one could bring themselves to be jealous, which I personally thought was a feat unto itself. Everybody wanted to date her, men and women. I fell in love with her, too, and hard. We stayed friends somehow.
Then suddenly, she disappeared. Her apartment looked like she had stepped out to buy some groceries. At the NTV station, word was she was off collecting yet another scoop and I don’t know why no one thought to check whether she’d taken a camera crew with her. I would have. Her parents, used to not hearing from her for months, asked on Facebook where she was and that was our first clue that we had no idea. “Mana langkah pelangi terakhir??” Facebook statuses screamed, with jokes about pots of gold at rainbows’ ends abounding. Even in the wake of a celebrity’s mysterious disappearance, we still had time to make crass jokes about her name.
“I remember this story now!” Hock Heng burst out as we climbed the steps of the pedestrian bridge. “You all went looking and no one could find her, right? And then you found her in Macau!”
I had been given an assignment to follow scientists who were measuring the presence of some mysterious chemical which apparently accounted for these strange happenings across the world. The chemical had an unnecessarily long name. I called it unobtanium, because I am a sloppy journalist.
The trip took me to Macau, which is not exactly one of my favourite cities. I ended up in a fishing village on the coast where a cave had some deposits. This was just one of many locations where they found the substance; there were more sites, and particularly concentrated where cultural imaginations turned real ran amok. Then I got into a barfight through mysterious means still confusing to me, and finally, in a prison cell. I haven’t told my parents, and I made my wife promise never to mention it.
My fellow cellmates were two martial arts masters. They had been in the drunken barfight with me. I think we were on the same side. They were called Singing Fist and Whip Blade. The names sounded better in Cantonese, but Singing Fist really wanted to be able to relate to me better and had thus insisted I call them using the English translation.
It was yet another reminder of how the world had changed. Suddenly, there were actualfax heroes, flipping back-kicks and flying like in the wuxia movies I grew up with. There were, in fact, people who could fly without benefit of airplanes, because they dreamed it so hard. The world was much more dangerous for it. Hock Heng doesn’t really understand growing up in a world where these things don’t happen. I suppose that’s how my parents felt when I brought home my first touchscreen tablet. Hock Heng is about as sympathetic to my bewilderment as I was to my dad’s: an attempt is made, but it is never quite successful.
“Those aren’t very good names,” I commented.
Whip Blade scowled at me. Singing Fist laughed.
When I looked past the bars of the cell, I saw a huddled figure in the corner, shivering under a rag of a quilted blanket. There was a police officer nearby, reading a newspaper behind his table. “Who’s that?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “No passport.”
“So… in jail too?”
“Didn’t commit a crime, so why jail?”
“Sick?” I was starting to get really concerned.
The officer shrugged again, but this time had a hint of an apology. “No passport.”
Some things do not change, even in an age of wonder.
When they let me out the next day, I went over to the still-huddled figure and gently shook their shoulders. “Hey, are you okay? Get some water, Singing Fist.”
“We’ve seen her around before,” Whip Blade said quietly behind me.
“Oh yeah? Then why didn’t you say anything when I asked?”
“Because she doesn’t really belong here,” was his eminently unhelpful reply.
When Singing Fist brought a cup of water, I sat the figure up. The quilt fell away from their face, and I almost shrieked.
Her cheeks were sunken in and her skin, ordinarily a radiant brown, was flushed yellow. Her hair was matted along the sides of her face, unkempt. Her bones felt like dry twigs in my arms. Her eyelids fluttered at the sound of her name. I panicked, because she had never felt so fragile in my arms before.
“Oi! Oi, Pelangi Hussein!” I pressed the cup of water to her lips.
She drank, and then smiled faintly. “Oi, Ciao Bella.” That was her nickname for me.
“Is that your name?” Singing Fist asked, his face way too close.
“Shut up. Pelangi, what happened?”
She’d fallen asleep.
I had some renminbi for an extra bed in my hotel room, and nursed Pelangi all night long. Singing Fist and Whip Blade were very interested in hearing about her, and gamely sat up with me to listen to my stories about her work. “I’ve got to get her to a hospital. Can you help?” I asked them.
“Sure,” Singing Fist said.
“You’ve got to get her home,” Whip Blade said.
“I can’t deal with this right now,” I said. “I’m going to bed. You guys come back tomorrow, okay?”
Instead of going to bed, I unwisely Facebooked “I FOUND PELANGI HUSSEIN.” My phone beeped incessantly with text messages and Twitter mentions from various people. I had an hour-long conversation with Pelangi’s parents who could not seem to understand that I had no idea of where she had been the last five years. I then had another hour-long conversation with my boss who wanted to know whether I was bringing her home and how was my progress on the unobtanium story. I had to turn off my phone, but got way less sleep than needed anyway, because I periodically got up to check on Pelangi.
It was probably the lack of sleep that pushed me to agree with Whip Blade and Singing Fist that getting her home immediately was a top priority. Also that they could be trusted with the job of escorting her home. On a raft. Attached to a sampan they punted out to sea.
“This is how we’ve always traveled,” Singing Fist assured me.
“This is how you’ve always traveled,” Whip Blade told me in what sounded like a reminder.
Yes, but, I wanted to say, my family migrated to Malaysia by a much bigger boat, and the rest followed by plane. The problem was that I couldn’t afford either at the moment. “How long will you take?” I asked, not very willing to entrust Pelangi to these strangers, but not seeing any other practical way.
“However long people think we will.”
It made sense to me at the time. If reality was shaped by the force of imagination, a shared desire to see something happen would bring it to fruition, no matter how extreme the notion. I wanted Pelangi to get home safe, even though the common sense I grew up with said she wouldn’t make it.
When I told Pelangi’s parents what I had done, they uttered a “Bismillah” under their breaths and said they would watch for her arrival. I avoided my Facebook feed after that, but my Twitter feed told me that a nation-wide candlelight vigil had begun, awaiting her safe return, praying for a quick homecoming. So I believed she would come home safe, too—so many people were fixated on the idea, so there was no reason it wouldn’t happen.
That was a few days ago. I returned home to Malaysia and avoided all technology, trying to get back to some semblance of a normal life—helping my son do homework, listen to my wife fuss about her upcoming conference, take long walks with my aging neighbour and her dog—before I sought out Pelangi.
Then came the text. After I put Hock Heng to bed that night, I cried and cried in Ranita’s arms. Whether because I never really got over Pelangi, or because I was hoping so much for something else, I’m not sure.
The funeral was clean and quick, as all Malay funerals are. I was present for the burial, leaving Ranita and Hock Heng at home to minimize awkwardness. They didn’t know Pelangi anyway. Pelangi’s mother was solemn, perhaps meditative, her head bowed most of the time. After the funeral, I plucked up the courage to approach her. “Mak cik, I’m sorry. This is my fault.”
Puan Nurazlin’s eyes lit up upon seeing me. “Chao Yong, ya? You brought Pelangi home to me!”
“Er, no I didn’t.”
She took my hands into hers and pressed them. “Come later to our house. We’re having a party for her.”
Stories, I discovered, are better when they have a kernel of truth. Moving further away from those kernels, they become fantastic and inexplicable. Then it moves into the realm of science fiction, and so, I had trouble following the conversations at hand.
I must have tossed and turned too often that night, because Ranita flung an arm over me and held me tight, as if she could hold me down.
“If you have something you need to talk about, you probably should talk about it now, because otherwise I won’t get any sleep.” Her grouchy mumble reverberated from her throat, since she was too tired to move her mouth muscles perfectly.
“I just don’t get it, Ranita,” I began. It took me a moment to find my words. Ranita didn’t stir, but I assumed she was still awake and listening to me, and plunged on. “I followed Pelangi’s career as closely as possible, just like everybody else, and I don’t know where all these stories are coming from.”
“Hrm?” Ranita sounded, which translated best into either “oh?” or “as in?”
“Okay, so you remember the Rajah Brooke story? Pelangi got the lede from it while she was covering a totally different story and interviewing folks in Kajang. Some old man mentioned it, and she asks around and then bam, an actual story.”
“But people are saying that she was called by some jewel in a cave that sang to her in Arabic.”
Ranita took a deep breath, like she was going to say something, then changed her mind and breathed it out instead.
“Yeah, exactly! And that wasn’t the only thing! There were so many crazy stories and I don’t even know where they came from! Hazri said that she was in Jurong for the Migration of the Parrots, you remember that? But she wasn’t. That time she was in Batu Caves doing an education segment. But somehow Hazri drew a picture of her at the Migration. Made her look glorious, of course, you know lah Hazri how he draws.”
Ranita took another deep breath and rolled onto her back. “So. It sounds like people are making up stories about Pelangi that make her sound cooler than she actually was.”
“Yes. And not even in the kind of ‘repressing all her bad qualities’ sort of way. More like, completely making up stuff. You know, the kind of stuff you figure takes about five generations of handing down stories that keep getting weirder, like Sejarah Melayu.”
“And this bothers you.”
“Of course!” I almost shouted, and sat up. “She wasn’t like that, okay? She was… she was real. She always wanted to go hunt down the reality behind things. And now this is how people remember her.”
I glanced at Ranita, who had rolled over onto her back and took the opportunity of suddenly-empty space to sprawl out. “I think there are worse things,” she said.
“Yeah, there are! They kept on talking about her like she never died!”
“Oh my God, calm down, Chao Yong.”
I took several deep breaths. “That’s the worst part. It’s like everyone was in denial. They kept on going on about next week’s crew assignments and how people were competing to get onto her camera crew. Present tense.”
“You sure you weren’t mis-hearing? Bahasa got no tense, remember? And your Bahasa is kind of ciplak.”
“Come on, I’m not that bad.”
She sighed again. “You know what, Chao Yong, for someone who makes a big deal about, what is it, ephemera, and social changes, you sure aren’t good with accepting when those things happen right in front of your face.”
I guiltily lay back down.
She gave me a moment to recover. “People need to remember their heroes the way they want to. And you can remember her the way you want to. It’s not hurting anybody, right?”
But what if, I thought, the collective imagination turned against us? I kept that to myself, because it was stupid and selfish and maybe I should be happier that Pelangi seemed to be so great in people’s minds. If enough people dream it, it becomes real, and that should be a good thing. Except, what if tomorrow people started talking about me and Ranita as if our wedding never happened? What if Ranita and I split, not because of any inherent problem in the relationship, but because enough people badmouthed us? Would Hock Heng disappear?
I pulled Ranita close. It was a hot night, and she pulled away from me in annoyance.
I was in the mamak cafe when the next text came.
I should like to say something like, I’m not that kind of hipster who always looks for the nice cafes to hang out with, and prefer the down-to-earth environment of the mamak cafe. The fact is that I would rather deal with the humidity of open-air cafes than I would blows to my wallet. Yet, at that moment, I rather wished for the air-conditioning of a nice cafe than the heat-induced headache that was coming on, because of the text.
got a lede on Rj Kecil’s submarine! meet me at jonker st coffeebean next mon 5pm
“But why,” I complained to Ranita afterward, “is a dead person texting me?”
“You ask me I ask who,” she replied, mouth full of mee siam. “You think you’re going to meet a zombie, is it? Did you see that cute cat video Ah Peng posted on FB, by the way?”
I love my wife so much because she always knew how to direct my attention. When I logged onto Facebook for the first time in maybe weeks, I saw Friend Requests from Whip Blade and Singing Fist.
“Found you!!!!” the latter’s message seemed to sing at me. “Rainbow told me your FB. How are you?”
“I think I just can’t deal with how weird the world’s become,” I told Ranita.
Ranita shrugged. “Sorry, can’t help you. I work in a physics lab.”
Pelangi had grown chattier as she approached home, Whip Blade said, in the longest sentence I had ever seen out of him, but she passed into unconsciousness anyway. Stories take time to recover, he said. People take time to remember.
This is way too much meta for real life, I replied.
Today’s age of wonders is an age of meta, he said, as unapologetically cryptic as when we’d first met.
I thought of asking Singing Fist my question, if he ever felt worried about dreamt out of existence, but it seemed a bit too early in our acquaintance to ask.
How does one explain to a child that people used to just die, and they stayed dead? Hock Heng took the news of my latest assignment with the kind of flexible equanimity that only children are capable of. “So you’re going to meet the dead person?” he deadpanned.
“I am going to see if she is actually really alive,” I said sternly, stuffing the edges of my bag with underwear. “And I want you to listen to your mom while I’m gone, do your chores, yadda yadda.” I thought for a moment. Hock Heng had decided that his new career goal was to become a linguist and a secret spy. “Also I need you to develop a new cipher that can be transmitted through, uh,” I glanced around frantically—if he didn’t have anything to do, he might get into trouble, “papayas,” I finished, reaching for the packet of the dried fruit sitting on the nightstand.
Hock Heng nodded, taking his mission seriously.
I checked into a very expensive hotel room off Jonker Street, and SMSed Pelangi that I was in town. As far as I could tell, all the camera crews had been hired on other assignments that day, but that department was fairly cagey about their details.
Pelangi was in my lobby and I might have slightly hyperventilated. I had seen her grave, I had seen the hospital records, and there had been a funeral. I had never considered that maybe she might come climbing out of the ground. I stared at the woman who once had been the love of my life and my brain stuttered for explanations.
“How?” was the first thing out of my mouth.
“Hi to you, too,” she said, sounding slightly offended.
“No, but seriously.”
She gave me a long look. “Do you want to work on the Raja Kecil story or not?” She handed me a folder. As I looked through the notes in it, she continued, “I got an interview with an old uncle who lives on the riverbanks, and he said he got a piece of glass that might have belonged to the box that Raja Kecil used to go underwater. I asked him if he had done any carbon dating yet and he hadn’t, so I was thinking—”
I let her chatter as we walked together down Jonker Street. We visited the old uncle, saw the piece of glass. It looked suitably ancient, and I called up archaeologists in the local universities for help. We recorded the interview and stayed up late into the night transcribing the recording. Pelangi seemed her usual self—we laughed as we worked, and I almost forgot that she had died not too long ago.
“I’m really glad you came out, Chao Yong,” she said as we prepared to sleep.
“I’m really glad you’re, uh, alive, Pelangi,” I answered.
“Yeah, me too!”
She was still there when we woke up the next day, and still there after breakfast. And it seemed, every time I tried to reach for a logical explanation for her continued existence, she seemed to fade in and out of reality. At one point, while I was zoning out, she whacked my arm. “Hey! Think less, work more!”
At night, as if to convince me she was real, she curled up next to me, her warm breath even on my neck. “I’m married, Pelangi,” I reminded her. Perhaps it was me who needed the reminder.
Ranita wisely did not bring up my assignment when I got home, and allowed me to mull on the subject for the next few days while I tried to make sense of it. Finally, I turned to Whip Blade, since he was still conveniently available on Facebook.
She became a story, he said.
Everyone’s a story, I said. Everyone is the protagonist of their own story.
No. That’s not what I meant. He sounded adamant, even in expressionless text.
Is it that only some people become stories? I asked. Are there some people more rooted in reality than others? I’m so torn. In my work philosophy, no one is ever too small to be part of a story, to be written about, to be thought about. Does this age of wonders only pick certain types of people to affect?
Doesn’t your wife work in a lab, Whip Blade wrote back. Aren’t there scientists working on this question?
Yes, but you seem to know something. Stop holding out.
He didn’t deign to answer me after that. I hoped I hadn’t offended him.
Pelangi came to my house to work some more on the Raja Kecil story. As she pulled into my driveway, Ranita was watering the plants in our garden, the hose on the mist setting. She handed the hose over to Hock Heng to exchange pleasantries with Pelangi.
“Mummy, look! A rainbow!” Hock Heng gleefully pointed out to me. The sun was high, and hit the mist at just the right angle.
“Cool, huh? Check this out, if you stay where you are, and just move your head around, and move the water around—”
We spent a few moments following the circle of the rainbow, over and over.
“Hey,” Pelangi said, coming to stand next to us. “Oh, that’s cool.”
Her smile dimpled her cheeks, and wavering between myth and fact, she had never felt quite so real as she did that moment.
Jaymee Goh writes fiction, poetry, and academese. Currently a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Riverside, she has been published in Science Fiction Studies, Strange Horizons and Stone Telling. She co-edited The Sea is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia (Rosarium Publishing, 2016) and is a Clarion ’16 graduate.