The Fish Bowl22 min read


Zen Cho
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Self-harm and suicide
Originally published in The Alchemy Press Book of Urban Mythic (Alchemy Press, 2013)

Su Yin was hiding the first time the fish spoke to her. It was three o’clock on a Thursday and she was at Puan Lai’s house for Maths Teras tuition.

She did not have strong feelings about Puan Lai, but she liked the house. Between the entrance and living room there was an expanse of cool white marble floor that would have been a hallway in a normal house. Puan Lai had dug out a hole in the floor and filled it with water. The pond was rectangular, like a swimming pool, but the water was green, swarming with koi and goldfish.

It had never been explained why they were there.

“Probably she rear them to sell,” said Su Yin’s mother. “Koi are very valuable, you know.”

Puan Lai hadn’t provided an explanation herself. As a teacher her style was direct and unfrivolous. She bombarded her students with exercises, leaving scarcely any time for questions, much less idle conversation.

For the past three Thursdays, Su Yin had sat in an alcove by the pool while waiting for class to start, hidden from the front door by an extravagant potted palm. She passed the time by watching the koi, golden and white and black, like splashes of paint curling in the water.

If she stared long enough, she could feel her thoughts take on the measured glide of the fishes’ bodies through the water. She felt as weightless as they must feel.

This mysterious peace was disturbed when the fish spoke.

“Eh, listen,” said the fish. “I got secret to tell you.”

Su Yin jumped. The voice had sounded clear and small in her right ear. She looked down into the water and saw a white koi, missing one eye.

“You want to hear or not?” said the koi.

Su Yin was going mad. Finally her mind was giving way. It was not as frightening as she’d thought it would be.

“Whether you want to listen or not, it’s not my problem,” said the koi. “I’m not the one missing out.”

The koi’s mouth opened and closed, an intermittent surprised O. Its white skin was so smooth it seemed scaleless. It would feel like silken tofu if you touched it. Seen from above, the fish’s one eye looked heavy-lidded and wise.

“Are you a magical fish or a door-to-door salesman?” Su Yin whispered.

“Wah, still know how to joke people ah,” said the koi. “You’re correct. I’m magical. I can grant your any wish. That’s my secret. Good or not?”

Su Yin no longer read much, but she used to like books. This was not unexpected.

“Okay,” she said. “So what?”

“You don’t have to whisper,” said the koi’s voice in her mind. “You don’t have to open your mouth. I can hear you screaming.”

Su Yin got up, knocking her elbow against the potted palm. She walked to the living room, her face stiff.

That wasn’t funny, she thought.

At this point she still thought it was her mind doing it, showing her magical talking fish. She thought it was the tiredness speaking.

Su Yin’s parents went to bed at 11.30 every night. At midnight Su Yin put on a thin cardigan and walked soft-footed downstairs to the computer.

She used to play RPGs, but even with the volume turned down she worried that her avatars’ thin battle cries and the muffled roaring of the dragons would reach through the ceiling and pierce her parents’ sleep. And you had to save your game, and her younger brother played it as well, so the evidence of what she did was there, ripe for the picking if he ever felt like betrayal.

These days she made dolls. There were hundreds of doll makers online, on different themes. Doll makers for every movie you could think of, for bands, for books and TV shows. It was a simple pursuit, but you never ran out of variations.

There was something reassuring about it. You started out with a naked, bald body, featureless and innocent. Then you built it up into the approximation of a person, adding hair, eyes, clothes, shoes, a smile or frown.

When Su Yin was done, she saved the graphic in a folder she’d squirrelled away inside five nested folders named things like “Nota_Bio_Encik’s Cheah’s class.” She gave each doll a name: Esmeralda for a green-eyed girl with wild red hair; Jane for a quiet-looking one in a gingham dress, her eyes cast down.

When Su Yin finally went to bed her back was stiff and her feet were cold. From her bed she could see the glowing green face of the clock. It was 2.20 am. She would not sleep for at least another hour.

Wednesday was usually a good day. She had two tuition classes in the afternoon, but in the half-hour gap between them, her dad drove her to a nearby coffeehouse. They sat at a sticky enamel table and she ate her way through three plates of siu mai while Dad watched a Hong Kong variety show on the TV.

She never felt sleepy in the kopitiam, despite the dozy mid-afternoon feeling of the air and the somnolent hum of the ceiling fan. It was only when Dad had dropped her off at Puan Rosnah’s and the lesson had started that she began to droop.

Su Yin no longer tried to fight it. She crossed her arms on the table and dropped her head.

Puan Rosnah was a nice older lady with a soft creaky voice and a smile that crinkled the skin around her eyes. She never complained about the naps. She was not an especially good teacher, and tended to drone. It didn’t matter because Su Yin also attended another, more effective BM tuition class. She didn’t question why she had to have two classes for the same subject: she’d got a B in BM for UPSR four years ago.

After class the students milled in the garden outside Puan Rosnah’s house, waiting for their parents to pick them up.

“Wah, relaxed ah you,” said Cheryl Lau to Su Yin.

There was no decent way to fob Cheryl off. She insisted on talking to Su Yin. They’d used to be friends, back when they were rivals for top of the form. Now that Su Yin was out of the running she avoided Cheryl when she could, but Cheryl still sought her out.

“Can nap in class also,” she said. “You study finish for the test already, is it?”

Su Yin’s heart clenched. She said, “Hah? Sorry, didn’t hear.”

“You know, Puan Sharifah’s test,” said Cheryl. They were in different classes, but they shared teachers for a couple of subjects. Puan Sharifah was one of them. She taught History and was known for her total lack of mercy.

“Our class had the test already,” said Cheryl. “Damn hard, man. Study like siao also still didn’t know how to answer.”

Su Yin couldn’t ask when her class was going to have the test. That would show she hadn’t been paying attention for weeks, maybe months.

“Is it? When was it?” she said.

“Tuesday,” said Cheryl. “Sucks, man. Have to study the whole weekend. Your class test is on Friday, right?”

Su Yin dug her fingernails into her palm.

“Yah,” she said. “I think so.”

One day was not enough to study for a test, especially not one set by Puan Sharifah. The next day at school, Su Yin’s classmates confirmed that it was going to be on Friday. Puan Sharifah had announced it three weeks ago. It would cover the five chapters they’d already been tested on in the last round of exams, and an additional three they’d studied since then.

Su Yin hadn’t looked at her History textbook in months.

During the drive to Puan Lai’s house, her dad said, “Why so quiet, girl? Thinking what?”

Su Yin came out of her bad dream.

“Nothing,” she said. “Thinking about school only.”

“My girl is so hardworking,” crooned Ma.

“Don’t need to overthink one lah,” said Dad. “Do the work and listen to the teacher enough already. With your brain, like that can pass already.”

Su Yin was half an hour early and none of the other students were there when the maid let her in. She crawled into her hiding place.

Remembering the conversation in the car made her want to hurt herself. She was ready when the fish said, “Change your mind ah?”

It was the white koi, floating up out of the dark water like a ghost.

She said, “How you know?”

The koi clearly thought it beneath itself to answer such a stupid question. It waited in the water, silent.

“Can you make me pass?” Su Yin whispered.

“Cheh, that only? Very easy,” said the koi.

“Not just pass,” said Su Yin. “Do well. Get good marks.”

“You want to get hundred?” said the koi.

That was pushing it.

“Seventy lah,” said Su Yin. Even that would be a disappointment to her parents. It would be an improvement compared to what she’d got in the last round of exams, but her parents didn’t know about those.

“Can,” said the koi. “I get you seventy exactly. No need to worry. Puan Sharifah won’t think you cheated. She’ll be very happy. She’ll think you buck up after the last exam.”

Su Yin didn’t ask how the koi knew she’d been worrying about that.

“One thing only,” said the koi. “My payment.”

“What is it?” said Su Yin.

The fish’s mouth opened and closed. It was toothless like the mouth of a hungry baby, or the mouth of an old man chanting a mantra under his breath.

“I’m so hungry,” it said.

Su Yin nodded.

“Put your hand here,” said the fish.

Su Yin dipped her right arm into the water, flinching at the cold. The fish blinked its one wise eye and swam up to her. She closed her eyes. The sharp, sharp teeth closed over her flesh.

It had to be true that the fish was magic, because it stole her voice. She felt the scream tear her throat, but there was no sound. It didn’t so much as ripple the water.

She snatched her arm out of the water, clutching it to her chest. The fish had bitten out a chunk of her forearm about the size of a fifty sen coin. Blood ran down her arm and dripped onto her shorts. She held her arm, shuddering.

The world went fuzzy. The separate leaves of the palm merged into a green blob, as if she was seeing them through tears.

“Wait first,” said the fish. “I’ll take the blood away.” Its voice in her head sounded drowsy, contented.

Answering her unasked question, it said, “No. It doesn’t work without the pain.”

By the time class started, the wound was already scabbing over, and her shorts were dry. The flesh of her arm felt raw and wet. She had to keep looking down to convince herself of the scab.

It was dark red and ugly on the inner side of her arm. The guy next to her flicked his eyes at it and looked away hastily. Unease pulled the air around him taut.

But Su Yin felt calm. The tension that had been lurking at the back of her head for months, ever since she’d seen the report card, had dissolved. She felt safe. Even sleepy. As if it was her who was cradled in the dark cool water, enjoying the peace of a full belly, dreaming of blood.

At first Su Yin thought it hadn’t worked. She opened the test paper and her mind went blank. The words on the page did not mean anything. Panic rose up from her belly.

She had to write something. She put the pen to paper.

It was as if someone had stabbed her in the arm. Su Yin’s left hand flew to her mouth, pressing down the shout. She pulled up her sleeve.

The scab on her right forearm was gone. The wound was open and bleeding, pus seeping from the edges. The skin around it was inflamed.

How had this happened? It had looked fine earlier. The scab had hardened overnight, was solid that morning.

Su Yin had faked a sneeze in the car going home from Puan Lai’s the day before. Her mother had said accusingly, “Hah, sneezing already!” and insisted on her changing into something warm. This had given her the excuse to put on a long-sleeved T-shirt. Today she was wearing baju kurung, so the scab had escaped notice.

Nobody could miss it now. She looked around, but everyone’s heads were bent over their desks. The teacher wasn’t looking in her direction.

The blood was streaming down her arm. Would it drip on her hair if she raised her hand for attention? thought Su Yin wildly.

The blood dripping on her desk began to form into balls like spilt mercury. The red liquid balls rolled onto the test paper, where they grew spidery legs, transformed into letters, resolved into words, and arranged themselves in tidy sentences. When the blood sank into the paper it turned blue. The writing was Su Yin’s own, the tails of the g’s and y’s flying off into space.

Su Yin’s blood did the test for her. In a trance, she turned each page over as it filled up with words.

When the last drop of blood had jumped onto the page, the wound healed up again. It happened in a matter of seconds. The scab was dry by the time she passed up her paper.

The pain was a throbbing thing in her arm.

Puan Sharifah had an agonising habit of announcing test results in descending order, starting from the highest mark. You had to walk all the way up to the front of the classroom to take your paper from her.

The practice would have caused Su Yin hideous anguish in earlier days. The only thing worse than not coming first was everyone knowing that she hadn’t come first. Nowadays it didn’t bother her. Her name came so late that most people had lost interest by then.

This time her name was fourteenth in the list. When Puan Sharifah handed her the paper, she said, “Good. This is an improvement.”

Puan Sharifah was sparing with her praise. Su Yin was so startled she didn’t react, but when she was back at her seat she allowed herself the burst of pleasure. She had earned it.

Her mother was not so pleased.

“Seventy?” she said. “That’s not 1A, right?”

“2A only,” said Su Yin, knowing her mother knew this. “You need seventy-five for 1A.”

Her mother pursed her lips.

“Girl, History is very important,” she said. “After this, when you’re doing STPM, you can drop the subject. But if the university sees you’re not so good at History, they will think you’re not so good at writing.”

“Do you need Sejarah tuition?” said Su Yin’s dad.

Nobody took tuition classes for History. The received wisdom was that you only had to memorise the textbooks to do well. Understanding was not required.

“Sejarah don’t really have tuition one,” Su Yin said. “Just have to study harder, I guess.”

“Don’t study hard. Study smart,” said her dad. But the answer pleased him: she was showing the right spirit.

“You got any problem concentrating at school?” said her mother. “Is your teacher not so good? You know you can tell us if anything.”

It was her chance. Su Yin almost told them.

The thought of the report card stopped her. She hadn’t thrown it away because they might have seen it in the trash can. She couldn’t put it in the underwear drawer, because her mom did her laundry and put her clothes away. She’d thought of hiding it under her mattress, but her mom might notice it when she was changing the bedclothes.

In the end Su Yin had stuck it between the pages of a Form 3 Geography reference book. She hadn’t looked at it again.

If Su Yin told her parents, she would have to tell them about the report card. The lie would come out. They would cry.

“You didn’t do well is one thing,” they’d say. “Mummy and Daddy can help you if you have problem at school. But the fact you lie to us, Su Yin—that means we didn’t bring you up properly.”

She didn’t say anything.

“If you need tuition, Mummy and Daddy will find for you,” said her mother. “Never mind whether Sejarah tuition got or not. Teachers’ salary is not very good also. Sure can find one who is willing to give tuition. Just need to pay only.”

“Don’t need,” said Su Yin. “I can handle it.”

After all, she wasn’t on her own anymore.

Form 3 was the best year of Su Yin’s life. People said Form 1 and Form 2 were the best years, because the workload was light and you didn’t have to worry about exams. Form 3 meant the first big exams, PMR, and then it all went downhill from there.

But Su Yin had always enjoyed exams. She liked the run-up to them best: the last two weeks before the exams, when your vision narrowed and your world contracted to this one essential thing. You were let off doing chores; TV and Internet were banned; co-curricular activities came to a stop. You entered a monkish world, a sanctuary from ordinary life, where all that was required of you was that you study and make the grade.

And you did the exams and you passed and you felt a sense of accomplishment. Your parents were proud of you. This was your job. It was what you were there for.

She’d done very well in PMR, leaving aside the B in BM. She’d got an extra A for Chinese even though neither of her parents spoke Mandarin, and she hadn’t had extra tuition. The tuition classes had only started in Form 4. Her parents had thought she could do with the help, since it was such a leap from Form 3 to Form 4.

What Su Yin remembered of Form 3 was a feeling of clarity. A sense of being capable of doing everything necessary.

It was funny. She could remember the fact of being happy. She knew intellectually that life had once been easy, that she had once known she could do things. But she no longer knew how that felt.

Now she lived on the edge of a volcano. Everything seemed fine above ground, but panic slumbered underneath. At any time things could go horribly wrong.

As they did when Miss Yong gave up on her.

Miss Yong did this without ceremony. She took the Grade 7 repertoire book off the stand and said, “This is pointless.”

Su Yin’s chin and shoulder hurt from holding the violin in place. She lowered her bow, not sure if she was supposed to stop playing.

“If you’re not taking this seriously, better don’t waste both our time,” said Miss Yong. “You’re not practising. You think I cannot tell?”

Su Yin took her violin by the neck so she could roll her shoulders. She mustn’t cry.

Miss Yong must have noticed her shock, because her face softened. She was a young woman with a temper and many an exasperating student had felt the sharp side of her tongue, but they had always got along before. She had taught Su Yin since Su Yin started playing at the age of ten.

“Look, don’t take this personally,” said Miss Yong. “But might be better if you find another teacher. Maybe I have taught you so long, you are too used to me already. You’re getting complacent. It’s not that you don’t have talent. But you cannot pass Grade 7 without practising. How many times a week do you practise?”

Su Yin was silent. She rushed through her pieces every Saturday morning before she went to class.

It wasn’t that she’d thought Miss Yong wouldn’t notice. There was just so much going on. Violin hadn’t been a priority.

“I thought so,” said Miss Yong. “I’ll talk to your mother. Don’t look so upset. It’s not the end of the world. If you start practising now and you’re disciplined, you can definitely pass your exam. But do you want to perform at the concert or not?”

The charity concert was in a fortnight. Su Yin was going to play one of her exam pieces. Her grandparents would be in town that weekend, and they were coming along with her parents to see her. They’d bought tickets weeks ago.

“Yes,” said Su Yin. She heard her voice wobble.

“I’m not going to stop you,” said Miss Yong. “But you’re old enough to know whether you can do it or not. Do you think you’re at a level where you can play for an audience? People are not going to be lenient, you know. I have a student, nine years old, this tall—” she sketched in the air a child the approximate size of a garden gnome “—and she’s the same grade as you. She’s been practising every day for the concert. This year she’s performed in public twice already.”

“I can do it,” whispered Su Yin. She cleared her throat. “I’ll do it.”

Miss Yong nodded, her mouth grim.

“Let’s finish early today,” she said. “I don’t think you’ll get much out of the class if we go on also.”

“I need another wish,” said Su Yin to the still water.

The white koi blinked a sleepy eye at her.

“Still want more?” it said. “One not enough meh?”

“One more only,” said Su Yin.

She was seeing the world through a film of water. For a moment she thought she was in the pool, looking up through the green light at a girl with a huge pale face and puffy eyes. Then she was back inside her body, kneeling by the pool and dripping tears into the water.

“I will pay,” she said.

“I was joking only,” said the white koi. “No matter how much wishes you want also, I can grant. As long as got payment. You want what?”

“Let me play well at the concert,” said Su Yin. “Don’t need until like Yo Yo Ma like that. Decent can already.”

She had not even been decent for the past few weeks. It wouldn’t make sense to be brilliant. She had to hide.

“This will be more expensive, know,” said the koi. “First time got discount. This time price is higher.”

“Can,” said Su Yin. “Anything also can.”

This time she dipped both her arms into the water, up to the elbow. Her fingers brushed a passing goldfish. It shot off into the depths, a shivering gold droplet of alarm.

This time she kept her eyes open. The white koi’s gummy mouth looked soft. When the mouth touched her skin, it looked as if it was covering her with little sucking kisses.

It felt as though hooks had sunk into her arm. They punctured the tender flesh of the inside of her elbow and tore their way through her skin, down to the wrists.

Su Yin managed to take her arm out of the pool to steady herself against the ledge, though her vision was going funny. Blood stained the water.

The koi had to do her other arm. It had to be slow. That was part of the magic.

The slower it was, the better she’d be. The pain made her safe. It would make her good enough.

On stage, Su Yin had a moment of terror. She touched her bow to the strings and a screechy hiss came out.

Her mother had put make up on her and her face felt heavy, unfamiliar. She cast a pleading look in the direction of the piano, though she could hardly see Miss Yong for the glare of the lights.

Miss Yong had the decency not to grimace. She nodded at Su Yin, lifted her hands from the keyboard, and prepared to start over again.

Su Yin had to perform. But nothing hurt.

She took down her violin, pretending to flip through her score. As she lifted her right hand to turn the page, the sleeve of her blouse fell away. The welts stood out, red on her skin.

She knew how she would do it.

She pulled the sleeves up to her elbows and nodded at Miss Yong. Miss Yong started playing the intro again. Su Yin touched the bow to the skin of her left arm.

The texture of the horsehair was hideous, dragged across raw flesh. But it sounded beautiful. A rich round woody sound unfurled from her bow.

There was a reason the fish had torn four lines down the length of her arm. Her fingers stayed on the fingerboard, dancing from string to string, but the strings were silent. Her bow scraped across the wounds on her arm, and the violin sang.

What did the audience see? Surely not the blood, dripping on the stage. It saw an ordinary girl, playing a piece competently.

Wrapped in the fish’s enchantment, Su Yin was safe from being seen. She felt she could do anything.

“That was very good,” said Miss Yong after the performance. “Finally thought you’d practise, hah?”

Su Yin’s playing had been okay only for a Grade 7 student, but she could tell Miss Yong wanted to be encouraging. She nodded.

“Are you all right, Su Yin?” said Miss Yong. “You’re a bit pale.”

“I’ve been working hard,” said Su Yin, and smiled at her distantly, ecstatically.

Su Yin was drooping over the table at Puan Rosnah’s house, waiting for class to start and sleep to take over, when Cheryl pulled out a chair next to her.

“Eh,” said Cheryl. She hesitated. “I want to talk to you. Are you free later?”

Su Yin stared at Cheryl for a dazed moment before the words registered.

She’d stopped doing the dolls—she’d only liked them because they kept her mind quiet, and nowadays the old buzzing thoughts no longer troubled her. But she still wasn’t getting much sleep. These days she lay awake at night for hours, perfectly content, watching the patterns of light shiver and uncoil on her ceiling like ripples in a pool.

“Hah?” she said.

She didn’t know what to say. She was free later. She never had anything important to do. She wasn’t free later. Her dad was coming to pick her up, and then there would be dinner and homework and the latest Canto serial, and then the light dancing on the ceiling.

Cheryl was smiling, trying to convince Su Yin it was nothing serious. The smile was a trap.

“We so long never talk,” Cheryl said. “What say we go kopitiam, have some snack, chat a bit? My mom can give you a ride home afterwards.”

“Is this for, like, a CF thing?” said Su Yin. Cheryl had been irritating in the past about inviting Su Yin to Christian Fellowship meetings.

Cheryl looked relieved.

“Yah! Want or not? Promise I won’t talk about it too long,” she said. “Come lah.”

“But my dad— “

Cheryl shoved her handphone into Su Yin’s hand.

“Quickly call him before class starts,” she said. “We’ll walk over to the kopitiam after class. I told my mom to pick me up from there.”

At the coffeehouse Cheryl bought some kuih and a Horlicks ais. Su Yin wasn’t hungry, but she ordered bubur cha cha to be sociable. When it came she dipped her spoon in the thick soup and lifted it out again, watching the yam and sweet potato bob to the surface on the waves she’d created. Any moment now the axe was going to drop.

“Are you doing okay ah?” said Cheryl.

Su Yin tried to look surprised.

“Yah,” she said. “Why?”

“Is everything okay at home?” said Cheryl. “With your parents all that?”

“Everything’s fine,” said Su Yin.

“I know maybe, recently,” said Cheryl. She was stirring her glass of Horlicks extra fast. “Like, maybe your studies have been a bit … how to say, you know, like, maybe they’re not going so smoothly. But you know, it’s no big deal, right? It’s nothing so important. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter. Right?”

“Is that right?” said Su Yin. Her plan had been to stay quiet, but some evil genius moved her to say: “What matters, then?”

“Oh, you know,” said Cheryl.

Say God, thought Su Yin. I dare you to say God.

“Being happy,” said Cheryl. “Family.”

Something in Su Yin’s chest came unstuck.

“What if they contradict?” she said. She regretted it the moment she said it.

“Su Yin, you are not doing okay,” said Cheryl.

It was too late to deny it. Stupid, stupid to have said that—

“It’s okay. I’m handling it,” said Su Yin. “Like you said, doing badly in studies is not the end of the world.”

“I didn’t mean that,” said Cheryl. She reached out too quickly for Su Yin to stop her, and flicked up her sleeve.

The red lines on her arm flared out before her sleeve slipped down again.

“You are not doing well,” said Cheryl. “This is not right.”

Su Yin said, “It helps.”

She didn’t know how to explain about the fish and the magic. About how giving something small and unimportant like pain meant you got back big things.

It looks worse than it is, she wanted to say. It’s worth it.

“I don’t know how to handle this kind of thing,” said Cheryl. She sounded scared. “Su Yin, you need better help than this. Have you told your parents?”

Su Yin didn’t need to answer that. She stared at her bubur cha cha. It would be cold if she ate it now.

“They should know,” said Cheryl.

“You can’t tell them!” said Su Yin.

“I have to tell somebody,” said Cheryl. “You cannot go on like this. You think other people haven’t noticed? I’m talking to you now because another guy in our tuition told me a few weeks ago you came in with a huge scar on your hand. You know when people start to gossip, this kind of story can spread very fast. Everyone at school knows why you don’t wear short sleeve anymore. It’s either your parents find out from me now, or a teacher tells them later.”

Su Yin swallowed her heart back down her throat.

“The teachers know?” she said.

“It’s only a matter of time,” said Cheryl. “Everybody knows already.”

That night Su Yin did not sleep.

When she saw her face in the pond again, it startled her. She had used to dislike her round face. She wasn’t chubby, but she had a flat, broad peasant’s face, full-cheeked.

Now her face had fined down. The cheeks were hollow. Her cheekbones stood out. Above them her narrow eyes were ringed with dark circles, panda-like.

She hadn’t noticed how she’d changed. Even her parents, usually so attentive, had missed it. When you saw someone every day, you did not see them change, little by little.

Small things, given time, become mountains. Fish bones lodge in the throat and choke you.

She said to her reflection in the water: “I need help.”

“What do you need?” said the white koi.

Su Yin thought about the hidden report card. The scars on her arms. Miss Yong dumping her as if six years counted for nothing. Cheryl’s inexorable kindness. Her mother and father.

Su Yin’s hands were shaking. She whispered: “Hide me. Can you do that?”

“For how long?” said the fish.

“Until it’s over,” said Su Yin.

“Are you willing to pay?” said the fish.


The fish’s mouth opened and closed, opened and closed again.

This time there was no need for negotiation. In some mysterious way, Su Yin and the white koi wanted the same thing.

“Leave your clothes on the floor there,” said the fish.

Su Yin took her clothes off. She knelt on the floor, wincing when the chill of the marble hit her skin. She reached out to the fish with bare arms.

The white koi’s mouth opened wide. It was a black hole into which air and water flowed. What came out was transfigured, a substance entirely new.

What went in was hidden.

Su Yin put her hand into the koi’s mouth. It was warm and wet, but not unpleasantly so. She put in the other arm and closed her eyes and lowered her head, and let herself be swallowed whole.

The koi’s mouth was a dark place. Her body was being crushed, compacted, folded away. It hurt. But after this, Su Yin knew, there would be rest. After this, nothing.

The girl climbed out of the pond with jerky movements, as if she was so tired she had forgotten how to use her limbs. It took her a few tries to get out, collapsing on the marble floor. She lay limp as a landed fish on the edge of the pool, her hair unspooling in the water. Curious goldfish nibbled at the strands and swam away.

She got up, holding her body like someone learning an unfamiliar dance. The clothes were a puzzle, but she knew what they were supposed to look like. She worked at them until they looked right.

When she was done she walked out from behind the potted palm, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her.

With every step her legs grew stronger. With every step her feet got more used to the ground.

The students waiting in the living room looked up at her approach. Their eyes widened. “I fell in,” said the girl.

  • Zen Cho

    Zen Cho is the author of the Sorcerer to the Crown novels, Black Water Sister, and various shorter fiction. Her work has won the Hugo, Crawford, and British Fantasy Awards, and the LA Times Book Prize/Ray Bradbury Prize. Born and raised in Malaysia, Zen now lives in the UK.

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Short Fiction
Marian Denise Moore

A Mastery of German

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city except for the occasional

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