I was the one who found you, did you know? You’ve heard this story so many times before. But let me tell you one last time, Liyana.
I was looking for chickens’ eggs in the garden. Ma was poor growing up; it made her devoutly practical. No useless thing is allowed in our garden. All the trees bear fruit—bananas, mangoes, papayas. Lime plants in pots every New Year, and chickens everywhere.
It’s our pineapples that keep beauty in our garden, a row like a bar of golden sunlight on the grass. People stop to stare at them.
They’ve been here as long as our family’s owned this land. The leaves are long and thin, with sharp-toothed edges, like aloe vera. On young plants they’re pink as babies’ lips.
When our pineapples ripen, they grow big and luminous. The flesh is sweet, the juice smooth on the tongue. Our daughters are always good girls.
It had been so long I almost didn’t recognize you when I saw you. I came so close to plucking you out from the sheltering leaves— but God must have been watching me. I touched you, and the tips of my fingers felt the vibration of your beating heart.
Even then I didn’t dare believe it, until I parted the leaves and saw you.
Nüguo have thin skin, barbed and purple like the skin of young pineapples. I could see the outline of your body under the shell, nestled in the heart of the fruit. You weren’t human yet. Your head was huge; the rest of your body was a tail. Your hands and feet were fins. You were shaped like a peanut or a tadpole.
But I knew who you were straightaway—my little sister.
This time I’d protect you.
I was still little the first time we had a daughter like you. The family must have rejoiced when they found her. Ma would have gone singing around the house. We would have made tiny clothes for her and tried to think of good names, names rich with luck, names promising a happy life.
But I don’t remember all that. I only remember the storm. It was the monsoon season and the rain was fierce. The lightning split the sky in half, and the trees bent and touched their heads to the ground.
That day it rained without pause into the night. I was sleeping when a big smack of thunder woke me up. I heard someone crying, a lonely sound in the storm.
When I went downstairs I saw the nüguo sitting on the dining table. Her shell was broken to pieces by the violence of the rain. She was too small to be so unprotected, no bigger than my fist.
Ma was patting her dry with a towel.I was still little the first time we had a daughter like you.
I remember I went up to Ma and said, “Ma, I help you wipe your face.” I thought her cheeks were wet because she’d gone out in the rain. After my first little sister died, we thought we’d lost our chance. Everyone knows how rare nüguo are. They come to a family once in a generation, if that. In our family we had been waiting for a long time—there had been no nüguo in Ma’s generation.
People left fruits and biscuits at our door when they heard the news. Our friends told us to ask them if we needed help. Without a nüguo they knew our family would be coming on to some suffering times.
You were our miracle. We hid you with a sheet whenever the air smelled of rain. We cleared the soil around you to make sure no weeds were taking your food and water. We made the earth rich at your roots.
Every morning I came and spoke to you. I squatted on the ground, put my hand on the prickly skin of your shell, and felt the tiny repeated thud of your heartbeat.
In this way I learnt to love you. I knew you so well even before you were born.
When you started to ripen we lived in a state of constant fidgets. Ma hovered around the garden day and night. She forgot to serve our lodgers or feed the chickens. Every auntie in the neighborhood visited to dispense advice.
“When your nüguo is going to be born, you must wrap blankets around her to keep her warm,” said one.
But another said, “When the nüguo is going to be born already, you must keep her cool. Fan her with nipah leaves and sprinkle her with cold water.”
Aiyoh, we were serba salah—no matter what we did it would be wrong. I don’t know how we found the courage to decide that you were ready. But finally one day Ma set her mouth and stomped out to the garden.
We harvested you carefully, Ma holding you with both hands as I cut off the thick stem that attached you to the plant with our sharpest parang. Ma carried you to the house, holding you close to her breast. Your thorny shell scratched her arms, but she didn’t mind.
Ma is old-fashioned. She thinks too much luck is dangerous. Every happiness must be paid for. Every good thing brings bad things.
Nüguo look like pineapples, but you must cut them as if they are durian. One hack of the chopper along a fault line and the fruit will come open, revealing the treasure inside.Ma thinks too much luck is dangerous. Every happiness must be paid for. Every good thing brings bad things.
You came out perfect. You didn’t scream or wriggle like other babies, red with the indignities of human birth.
You were golden and hairless, your skin covered with millions of tiny thorns only visible up close. The interwoven leaves folded neatly over your fragile skull reminded one of ketupat.
You were a polite baby. The first thing you did was yawn and open your eyes. Such a gentle way of saying hello. The inside of your mouth and the irises of your eyes were pale green.
Ma picked you up out of the juicy shards of the nüguo and put her cheek to your wet cheek. People like us find it difficult to touch people like you. The thorns on your skin catch on our skin, rub rashes into it. The vegetable stiffness of your flesh is strange to us.
But we dried you together, Ma and I, and we dressed you and kissed you even though it made our lips swollen and tender. You were so welcome, Liyana. We’d waited so long for you.
The only nüguo person I knew growing up was our grandmother. But she couldn’t tell me about what it was like, of course.
Ah Ma had had a disappointing life. When she was a girl, this house was a gambling den. The people who came here were small-time samseng, or men who didn’t like to work—not the kind of men you want your daughter to meet. Her mother and father were too busy to worry too much about Ah Ma. She had to look out for herself, but before she could learn, she fell in love with your grandfather. She was fifteen years old. He was thirty-five.
You don’t want to hear about your grandfather. Maybe it’s an interesting story. Interesting doesn’t mean happy.
But we mustn’t speak ill of the dead.
Ma says you’re like Ah Ma. She would know—she’s the only one who remembers her. Of course Ah Ma wasn’t really our grandmother. Ma was her sister’s daughter, but the sister went away to work in the city. The sister liked working better than children, but that was all right. Ah Ma loved nothing better than children.
She would have done anything for us. She gave us all she had.
You were like that too—so good, so giving. You cried softly, in hesitant sobs, as if you weren’t sure you wanted anyone else to hear. When you got older you followed me everywhere, and everything we did, you wanted to do—making beds, cooking meals, cleaning rooms after the guests left. You learnt quickly. You hated to be spared anything.
In the morning, when the sun had risen but the air was still cool, you’d get up and creep downstairs, quietly, so as not to wake up the guests. Outside in the garden Ma would be hanging up laundry.
You’d step out onto the grass, barefoot, and dig your feet into the ground. You turned your face to the sun and opened your green eyes, and that was how you’d fall asleep. Standing upright, rooted in the earth.
When Ma watered the plants she’d water you last, all around your feet, until you woke up and started giggling because it tickled.
You were so sweet, and we were starved for sweetness. You were so easy after a life of difficult. Ma used to watch you with dazzled eyes, like a woman in love. She loved me too, but not like that. The last time she looked at somebody like that was before our brother left.
You never knew our brother. He was a nice boy, a loveable boy, but not good. The men in our family are always nice but not good. The women are too good. It ends up like that.
You used to ask me so many questions: “What does Ko Ko look like? When is he coming back? Why did he go away?” I felt bad for not being able to answer. Showing you his photograph wasn’t enough. That stiff boy in the picture wasn’t what I remembered of our brother—in person he’d been brighter, warmer, funnier. When he laughed, his laugh used to fill the whole house, from the floor to the roof.
You helped me write letters to him in your neatest handwriting, I dictating: “Dear Ko Ko, here is the money this time. Please try to make it last longer. Times are hard and the guests are not so many. We have a new white chicken named Pau. We would be so happy to see you again. I hope you are sleeping on comfortable beds. We all love you.”
“Can I send my kisses?” you asked. When I said yes, you pressed your lips to the paper, carefully. Golden juice stained the page, smelling of sugar, sticky to the touch.
You should have had a long life. You should have been able to choose when you wanted to go.
Ah Ma was the one who told Ma to put her in the ground. She went because she felt life had lost its luster. The old house was still good, the family could have lived in her for at least another few years. But when Ma protested, Ah Ma said, “Aiyah, living is not fun for me already. Your father passed away, my sons have all gone. I am old. What else can I do for you all?”
When she was buried Ma was sad, of course, but it was a happy time as well. We held a banquet for everybody in the neighborhood, and sang songs as the new house sprouted. When we set fire to the old house the whole family stood outside and held hands around the fire so no bad spirits would disturb the house’s passage to heaven.
Ko Ko was only a little boy then. Ma says when he saw the spirit go up from the flames, he thought it was our grandmother. He shouted, “Ah Ma, don’t go away!” It made everyone laugh and cry at the same time. Ma explained that Ah Ma was still with us. The bones of our new home were her bones. She would stay and look after us for a long time.
It’s not Ah Ma’s fault she went bad. In an old house the wood begins to warp. The spirit, restless, dreams of escape. Its dreams make the floorboards buckle and the damp creep up the walls. Fuzz grows in the dim corners of rooms. The house’s breath becomes unhealthy, full of spores, so that the air is not good for humans to breathe.
We stood it as long as we could, Liyana. We started wearing slippers inside the house because otherwise the floor drove splinters into our feet. We had always been busy, but we worked even harder, because the house needed so much cleaning. We left the doors and windows open all the time, to clear the air.
But the guests stopped coming. Who wants to lodge in a bad house?You should have had a long life. You should have been able to choose when you wanted to go.
It used to be that we didn’t have to take lodgers. When Pa was around we could live on his salary. Ma used to take washing and make clothes for people in the neighborhood, and we sold our pineapples, but that was just for fun—so we could have new clothes, buy treats for the family.
After Pa passed away, we began to struggle. Losing our first nüguo made it even worse. Before, we used to be like other people: all our uncles and aunties lived in the house with us. It’s a big house, but it was a tight fit then, because Ah Ma had five children and they were all married and they all had children.
But when the first little sister came and went, the uncles and aunties said it was because Ah Ma was unhappy with us. Losing a nüguo is such bad luck. The uncles and aunties left the house, running from the bad luck, but Ma stayed. She was Ah Ma’s eldest daughter. What would be left for Ah Ma if we all went away? What would happen when the house went bad and Ah Ma needed somebody to help her?
Sacrifice creates obligations. Remember that, Liyana. You have rights.
Without the lodgers we could not manage. We killed most of our chickens. We stripped our gardens bare. The rooms stood empty: the air smelled of rot, and any light you lit in the house went out almost at once.
One day early in the morning I came out into the sun. Ma and I were getting very dark because we spent all our time outdoors, away from the house. You were standing in the garden, eating the sunshine with your face to the sky. Ma was watching you, and she had tears in her eyes.
“She’s so painful,” she said.
I looked at you, but you seemed happy. You didn’t notice what was happening to the house. You were still small, and different from humans.
“Not Liyana,” said Ma. “Your Ah Ma. She also deserves to be considered. She gave us her whole life and death, and what are we giving her? We are being selfish.”
There was a bitter taste in my mouth. “But Liyana is so small.”
“We’re wrong already,” said Ma. “There should have been a nüguo in my generation. Someone my age . . . she would be old enough to decide herself. Maybe she’ll even be tired of life, ready to go, like Ah Ma.” She put her arms around herself. “Must be I did something bad in my past life. Maybe it’s the mistakes I made with your brother.”
“It’s not your fault,” I said.
“Whether it’s my fault or not, I’m not the one suffering the consequence,” said Ma. She wiped her eyes, but her face was stern. “We owe Ah Ma everything. We must be fair.”
So we took you to the garden, Liyana; we didn’t have a choice. We kissed your prickly face and we laid you in the ground. It was nighttime and you were sleeping, and the earth is familiar to you, a kinder mother than any human could be. You didn’t wake when we started to cover you with soil.
We did it gently, as if we were folding a blanket over your little body. It was only towards the end that you opened your eyes, gluey with sleep, and said, in a faraway voice, “What’s happening, Mama?”
“We’re saying goodbye to Ah Ma,” said Ma. She didn’t cry then or later. I was crying silently. I could hardly breathe; the snot was running down my face. I didn’t blow my nose, because I was scared of waking you.
“Don’t worry, darling,” said Ma. “Go back to sleep.”
You closed your eyes and you didn’t stir even when we began to pat the soil down over your face.
“It’s natural for her,” said Ma. “When we buried Ah Ma she was awake. She just folded her hands like that and lay there while we threw in the soil. She was looking out at us until the end.”
The new house sprouted fast, because you were so young. After a day and a night we could see the new green shoot where we had buried you.
The house will be green at first, Ma said, as green as your eyes were. When it matures it turns brown and hardens. It will last us many long years, as long as you would have lived as a woman.
To push a house beyond that lifespan is not kind or fair. When we had seen the new green shoot we prepared the bonfire. That night we set fire to the old house.
There were not enough people to form a ring around the house—not like the old days when the family all lived together. Ma and I stood in front of the fire and shouted and banged pans to frighten away the bad spirits.
I was watching out for Ah Ma, but my eyes were dazzled by the flames and stung by the smoke. I would have missed her if Ma hadn’t said: “Nah—there!”
She gestured at a silver wisp of smoke. It could have been Ah Ma’s spirit, or just the smoke from the fire—I wasn’t sure how Ma knew it was her. The spiral shivered and vanished. The old house groaned, and the roof came crashing down.
We’ll sleep outdoors for now. Luckily it’s not the rainy season, but we won’t have to do it for long. Already you’ve put out green creepers over the ruins of the old house.
In a week, maybe two, you’ll develop a network of roots, spread over the ground. Up will spring sturdy floors, strong pillars, thick walls. You’ll bud rooms and a flexible roof. We’ll have to tile the roof ourselves, to protect you from the wind and rain and sunshine. The doors and windows we’ll have to carve out of the walls. They will be made of good, young, supple wood, as sound as our daughters always are.
I’ll stay with you now, Liyana. Because we’re taking your death, you’ll have my life. I can’t promise to protect you anymore, but when the time comes, I’ll set fire to you and let you go. You’ll soar up into the dark night sky with a sigh, unshackled from obligation, restored to yourself.
As I sleep under your roof, I’ll remember you as you were—when you had a face, when you had eyes, when I could hold your warm prickly skinned body within the compass of my arms and tell you the story of how I found you. When Ma has passed on, I’ll still be here, and my daughters after me. As long as you need us, until you can be free again.
“Liyana” © 2014 Zen Cho. Excerpted with permission of the author of Spirits Abroad, published on August 10, 2021, by Small Beer Press.