Shape in the Night

Image of Short Story
I had been there for almost three weeks when I first saw her. It would have seemed sort of bizarre, I guess, if everything else about the place hadn’t been so strange. I suppose I hadn’t really arrived prepared. I hadn’t studied the language, the culture, the history or the geopolitics. Not like I was supposed to. I had bought a guide book. I’d even looked through it, a little. Casually, like to pass the time on the bus, but that was about it. If you’d have walked into my small apartment and picked my guidebook up off of the dresser, you might have thought it had never been opened. The spine was still smooth. The pages still turned stiffly. There were no dog-eared corners; no notes in the margins.
Everything I had learned about the place since arriving had a quality of heat to it. The brazen sun that chased me indoors at midday. The sweltering sunsets that never failed to leave a sheen of sweat upon my brow as the sultry, heavy, evening air filled the streets. The overwhelming feeling of closeness and warmth radiating from the forest – which seemed to not only surround but encroach on every unoccupied space within the village – made only stronger and more present by the myriad sounds of life that ceaselessly abounded. The neon lights, burning like cookfires. Actual cookfires, circulating the streets on carts and, sometimes, even the backs of bicycles. The excited, bubbling-over-pot-like language of the locals, each another breath of humidity. The sweat from beer and soda bottles, dripping onto all surfaces, at all hours. The heavy midnight air, lying upon me as I lay, never fully asleep and uncovered, sweating upon my bed with the window open and the fan on as the mosquito net swayed and billowed above me.
It was Am who taught me what to do on such nights; nights that lay the full length of their hot, heavy bodies upon you. She said all you need do is take a shower, towel off and then take yourself to bed wrapped in the comforting embrace of that still damp towel. The air would blow across and through the cloth and begin to evaporate, keeping you cool long enough to drift into a deep sleep. I told her how clever I thought this was. Geng mak, she had taught me to say. But I also remembered doing something similar during the war: hanging bottles of water within damp socks from trees, the backs of chairs, the tops of poles and the edges of armored vehicles while waiting for the hot, desert wind to blow through them and prepare a cold drink. It was a lot like cooking, I remembered thinking.
It was on a night before remembering this, however, that I first saw her. She stood over me, leaning down so that her hair spread out, creating a silhouette like a comet cutting through the night sky above me. I looked into the blank abyss where I knew her face would be and wanted to ask her who she was. I could not. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t even move. Whether this is because I was overcome with some kind of debilitating emotion, or because of the intense pressure I felt upon my chest, I’m unsure. Both were certainly there. The emotion a kind of hyper-stimulated, delirious excitement; a thrill or a fear or both. The pressure, emanating from the place on my chest where this strange woman pressed both of her hands upon me. I tried to breathe in, deeply, but while I could feel air flowing into my chest, I could not seem to take in enough air to stop. I inhaled, seemingly towards endlessness, as the form above me began to swell and waver until it was not a shape at all, but a curtain of darkness.
I awoke to noisy birdsong and stifling morning air. I looked outside and saw steam rising, already, from the dew-saturated landscape.
I met Am that evening in a café made of concrete and corrugated steel. She smiled and sat down across from me. I’m not sure why. We talked late into the night, undisturbed by anyone else save for the odd, curious glance of passers-by. She began to teach me about the strange place I had come to. She was such a wonderful and confounding thing. I told her she made me think of a palm tree caught swaying in the ocean breeze as the sun rose: so striking, so pliant, so strong, so graceful and so impossible to look away from. She smiled as if she had already heard that one.
She began to stay with me, from time to time, a week or so later. It didn’t take me long to tell her my thoughts. I told her about myself, where I’d come from, how I’d gotten here, all the mistakes and failures and defeats that had led up to it. She listened so intently and with such acceptance that I couldn’t be entirely certain she understood what she’d heard. I told her about the heat. She told me to try sleeping in a damp towel. She showed me how. I told her about the woman who I sometimes woke to find standing over me, pressing down on my chest. She sat up for a moment, looking thoughtful.
“There are many kinds of ghosts here,” she said. “Every ghost wants something. This kind of ghost, I think, wants something from you.” She ran her hand along my chest. “But you must not ask what this ghost wants. You must not talk to her. If you do, she may never leave.”
“What should I do?” I asked.
She smiled.
“Perhaps,” she said, “you must experiment!”
She laughed in a soft yet energetic way that made me feel that only I could hear it.
Over the next two weeks, I did conduct experiments. I left incense burning on the first night. The next, I did the same, but I also left out some cash – pocket change, really – to see if she wanted that. I left her a pear. I purchased a small gold bracelet, a delicate thing, and left that out as well. I tried a jade charm. A small, beautiful, wooden box. An assortment of chocolate bars. One of my favorite paperback books. Cigarettes. A garland of flowers. Whisky. A glass of plain water. A steamed meat bun. A strawberry soda.
Time passed in this way. I kept a journal of results. Often, Am would be there before I would place my offering out. I’d look over to her and raise an eyebrow. She would look at the ceiling, smile and shrug her shoulders. The woman still came, from time to time, but I found that, regardless, I slept quite soundly and awoke refreshed.
Then finally, on a night much like the others I prepared another offering. It was sliced mango and a glass of beer. I poured one for myself, as well. Am watched from the bed, sitting up, her back leaning against the concrete wall, her hair still wet from the shower, her body covered only in the damp towel she had wrapped around herself.
“I am jealous,” she said.
“You share so much with her.”
“Envious,” I corrected her, “and there is nothing I share with her that I would not share with you”
She raised her eyebrows, asking me to prove it.
I carried the plate of mango and a glass of beer over to her.
She ate a single slice and took a sip.
“Very good,” she said. “Now come to bed.”
I returned the nearly full glass of beer and the sliced mango to the table.
That night I told Am that I loved her. It was a stupid thing to do. I had been too quick to love in the past and it had cost me. After that I had spent a long time seemingly unable to do so again. However, that night I said what I said. There is no taking it back.
When I awoke in the morning, I felt more invigorated than I had since arriving. The air seemed almost crisp, the birdsong, delicate. I could feel that the heat was still there, but it no longer felt oppressive. It had become something else. Something light. Almost like something I could carry or wear. An accessory – like a scarf, perhaps – or a token, a memento.
I looked at that table.
The mango was gone. One of the glasses of beer was empty.
I turned to tell Am.
But of course, she, too, was gone.