The Bones of the Matter, fiction by Cassandra Khaw

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Can’t wait for the new issue? Neither can we. Here is a delicious sneak peek from See the Elephant, Issue Two, Love & War in the Slipstream. 

Edited Kestrelweb_web

illustration © Kestrelweb

WITCHCRAFT COMES EASY to mothers. It’s a profession you learn from childbirth, an alchemy of instinct and long hours spent deciphering a colicky infant’s wails. It’s a magic of thunderous affection and the calm, cold-water certainty that you will murder for your young.

Even so, not many are quite as powerful as Mei Fong’s mother. At sixty-two, her eldritch gifts are in ascendance, no longer pillowed by the meekness of her forties, nor dogged by the existential anxieties of her fifties. Mei Fong understands this, the way she understands the machinery of her fingers, the clumsiness of desire. It’s why she’s here this evening, storm-chilled and aching from a bruised heart.

“Ma? I’m home!”

Silence, warmly redolent of baked sweetness, answers. Mei Fong sheds shoes and socks, locking the door behind her. The floor creaks beneath her bare feet. On the outside, her mother’s house is indistinguishable from its sibling-structures, a two-story edifice guarded by a sumptuous herb garden. Inside, however, space arches like a cat beneath its owner’s attentions, lengthening into impossibility.

“Ma?” Mei Fong calls out again, louder this time. Since her mother turned forty, communication between living room and kitchen has mandated shouting, the interstitial corridor now too wide for whispers to travel. “Are you there?”

“Hello?”

She spins to see a man descending the stairs, slouch-shouldered and lean, like a hunting dog turned prince. Mei Fong smiles warily. The interloper is almost young enough to have been a childhood playmate of hers.

“Um. Hi,” he says again, made shy by scrutiny. A smile flits about his mouth like a frightened bird. “Your mother’s, um. She’ll be right down.”

Mei Fong nods solemnly. She can taste the sex, salty and pungent, clinging to his skin. Her eyes travel his face. No sorceries scald the geometry of his bones, the clarity of his regard. The only magic that Mei Fong’s mother had used to entice his desire was the one baked in the coquetry of a woman’s hips.

“Okay,” she declares, envy constricting her throat. If only it was as easy for her as it was for her mother! If only she, too, could lure her heart’s desire with just a smile.

“It’s nice to meet … your mother’s said so much … I mean.” His words knot with longing, even as he bows his head. “I don’t know if your mom has told you about us. I, um. I guess not. Hello.”

“She has.” Mei Fong lies, too sympathetic for veracity, too heart-sick for cruelty. “But I’m just terrible with names.”

“Shaun.”

They clasp hands and then separate, impulse for courtesy slaked. With an awkward smile, Mei Fong flees to the kitchen, feeling like a mouse in her mother’s pantry.

He does not follow. She hears instead a shuffle of footsteps, the soft thump of a body being folded into the leather couch. Soon, the sound of the television crests, a staticky mumble. Alone, Mei Fong takes a moment to catalog the gleaming, humid landscape.

Pans squat in the sink, along with a cabal of custard-yellow cups and measuring spoons, thin slivers of steel like finger bones. The obsidian kitchen counter is dusted in flour, with dollops of chocolate and strands of icing already assaulted by ants.

In the golden heart of the oven, two trays of brownies are slowly being coaxed into life. From the doorway, Mei Fong glimpses an extravagance of chopped nuts, a glazing of caramel.

“Mei Fong!”

A rustle of silks and the perfume of passion fruit announce her mother’s arrival. Sparrow-small with lively brown eyes, the older woman is like a confection herself, decadent and inviting. Her new man trails in her shadow, eyes a battleground between pride and a hopeless, hangdog affection.

“Have you eaten? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home? We’d have had dinner prepared for you! Or, at least, something ready in the fridge….”

Mei Fong doesn’t answer at first, allowing herself to be wolfed down by words. She hugs her mother tight, cheek to forehead, eyes shut. Mei Fong knows that her silence will be accurately decoded as suffering. She knows the torrent of questions will come. But for a string of heartbeats, her thoughts do not clamor, and that somehow makes the eventuality of interrogation worthwhile.

“Did someone hurt you, girl?” Appraisal spiced with anger. Her mother pushes backwards to hold Mei Fong at arm’s length, expression exacting.

The air shudders at the idea, its honeyed brilliance briefly curdled.

“No. Nononono.” Mei Fong gestures wildly in a bid to cut through the fermenting terrors. “Nothing like that, Ma. I promise.”

“Mmm.” The sound is silken, heavy with distrust.

“It’s just….” Mei Fong orbits the kitchen in consternation, trying desperately to ignore her mother’s lover. “So, I’m seeing this girl, right? Nadia? You remember her? I like her a lot, but her father’s kinda traditional. And, there’s this guy she’s been hanging out with. And—”

“And you’re worried she’s cheating on you?”

A clink of pans, the hiss of drawers being examined.

Mei Fong exhales, tongue pressed to the roof of her mouth, as though to bar the exit of words. They emerge, nonetheless. “No. I mean, yes. And you don’t have to make me any food, Ma.”

“Nonsense.” A dismissal accompanied by a delicate flap of a hand. “Food always makes everything better.”

Mei Fong does not argue. She knows better. Of all the household magics obedient to her mother, food is the most potent, the most prized, the most beloved.

So, she slides instead atop the kitchen counter, hands knotted on her lap, and watches her mother rob cupboards and refrigerator of ingredients.

A pale bulb of garlic for courage. Diced red potatoes to cultivate fortitude. Onions sliced thin enough for truth to squeeze through, and gunpowder-colored peppercorn to parrot the purposefulness of a bullet in flight.

Mei Fong watches in silence as the garlic is skinned, minced, and browned in goat butter. The onions follow, with a susurrus of oil and vegetable fiber.

“If you wish to know the truth, ask her for the truth,” her mother remarks, matter-of-fact. Her world view permits no needless subtleties. “Or are you afraid of her answer?”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?”

“Because people are more complicated in the modern world,” Mei Fong snaps, unable to hide the petulance in her voice. It has been almost a decade since Mei Fong could be counted as a child, but her mother still has a gift for making her feel six, impotent and unwieldy. “I can’t just ask her if she’s seeing someone behind my back, if this is just a….”

Flash of unhappy memories: Nadia’s father. His face clotted with heartbreak as he tells her that this is just a phase for his daughter.

“A what?”

Mei Fong looks up into her mother’s eyes, lambent with expectation, her mouth quirked just so, as though to say she already knows.

“Nothing,” Mei Fong lies. “Anyway. The reason I’m here is I wanted to ask you for a spell.”

Movement ceases. Mei Fong does not look at her mother, afraid of the knife-sharp gaze. She hears the clink of a spatula against the rim of the skillet. A long, disappointed noise follows.

“A love spell?” Her mother demands, voice salted with rebuke. “Oh, Mei. I thought you outgrew that.”

Shamed, Mei Fong remembers being fifteen and breathless, a grimoire splayed like a lover on her lap, the want in her veins bhut jolokia-hot. What followed after, she recalls with less accuracy, the details already turned to rot.

She kneads the air, uncertain, then shakes her head, letting passion override the bile-taste of old mistakes. Uncorked, her words a torrent. “No. I don’t want to cast a love spell. I don’t. I swear. I just … I just need reassurance. Reassurance.” Mei Fong repeats the word tenderly, lets it steep on her tongue, calm discovered in its polysyllabic cadence. “It’s selfish, but I need a way to know, for sure, that she won’t… leave.”

“So, wine her. Dine her. Write her a love poem so sweet that it transcends to myth. Kiss her mouth, her throat, the sugar-tips of her nipples—”

“Ma!” Scandal pierces Mei Fong’s voice.

“Don’t be a prude. You’re younger than I.” Mei Fong’s mother chuckles, eyes slipping fox-sly to where her own lover labors. “The best magics are the ones that require no magic at all, Mei. You don’t need a spell.”

“Easy for you to say,” Mei Fong retorts, bitter.

Mei Fong’s mother appends bay leaf and sage to the skillet, fresh imports from the garden. A dash of red wine, a whisper of Worcestershire sauce to magnify flavor and heart and faith. She adds sliced mushrooms from her lover, who then resumes his quiet vigil in a corner.

“Besides, even if I did give you a spell—”

“I know,” Mei Fong replies, tripping over the words. “I can’t use it. That’s why I need you to come along too… if that’s okay, that is.”

“For you, daughter of my bones, anything.” A lavish grin, startling in its impishness.

“It’s just that I’m afraid that she’ll listen to her father or want that man’s money and security and—” Mei Fong falters. “What did you say?”

The air hangs heavy with anticipation, with spices and sauce, with a carnal eagerness.

“I said okay.” Mei Fong’s mother douses the vegetables in crushed peppercorn. “I’ll help you. Do you want brown rice or white? Say white. So much tastier.”

 

“ARE YOU SURE about this?” Nadia whispers.

“About what?”

“Dinner with your mother.” An agitated hiss, nails digging into Mei Fong’s palm. “What if she doesn’t like me?”

“She’ll love you, I promise,” Mei Fong declares with the authority of the desperate, her smile feverish. She squeezes Nadia’s hand.

“Which is why we’re having dinner in your place, instead of hers.” A fluttering, frayed smile darts across Nadia’s face as she peels away. She is dark where Mei Fong is pale, tall and succulent where Mei Fong is short and blandly angular. Her pianist fingers flow over fabric and furniture, mapping the room with touch and a travelling gaze, restless as the ocean.

“Auntie,” Nadia says to the shape in the kitchen, sketching a taut little half-bow.

The air is sensuous with aromas: cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cilantro. Garlic underscored with rice wine, a sweetness of grilling meat and cream-based sauces.

“Nadia.” Abrupt but not unkind, the reply truncated by more pressing concerns. Mei Fong’s mother does not emerge from the aromatic tempest. “Mei? Go set the table, please. You can help if you like, Nadia. You’re our guest of honor, though. Feel free to just lounge and be beautiful instead. Mei would not complain, I’m sure.”

“Yes, Ma.” Timid assent, delivered with a hunching of thin shoulders and a bending of the mouth that is both smile and grimace.

“Thought you said she was nice?” Nadia whispers in the dining room, her voice a fishhook in her lover’s skin.

Silence, as Mei Fong roots for excuses. In the end, she concedes a shrug, smile travelling from rigid to rueful. “Daughters don’t get nice. Other people do.”

She flees before Nadia can organize a retort, slips meekly back into the kitchen and extracts bowls and cutlery, plates and glasses. Upon her return, Nadia and Mei Fong do not speak, operating in focused silence. It is only after a pageant of diningware has been assembled that Nadia snares her lover’s fingers, interlacing them with her own. Mei Fong pulls, but Nadia does not relent, holding fast.

“You need to tell me what’s wrong,” Nadia says, dark eyes stained with worry.

“I….” Mei Fong falters.

Callused fingertips, made indelicate by a rural childhood, smooth Mei Fong’s palms open. Gently, they explore the road map of fortunes embedded in the flesh.

Mei Fong finds herself struck by an electric curiosity. Can Nadia read futures? Does her mother, like Mei Fong’s mother, thread enchantments into crock-pots and cantrips into coffee? Did she, too, discover a turbulent happiness for the pair and then wish them well despite it?

Can she see the afterimage of magic, bolted onto the walls like tapestries? The stirrings of the love spell in waiting? Questions strain at her tongue, but Mei Fong allows none passage.

“Does your mother have trouble with, you know, us?” Nadia prompts.

A shake of her head, her retort glib and unthinking. “Please. She’s not your father.”

Nadia recoils.

“Sorry,” Mei Fong whispers. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

Stiffly, Nadia says, “I know he can be a bit unkind … about non-heteronormative lifestyles, but he just wants his little girl to be happy. You make me happy, so he’ll learn to deal.”

Mei Fong does not answer, the memory like fish bones in her gut. They prick her lightly and repeatedly, until her thoughts run red with hurt.

She swallows.

“You’re the best thing to have happened to me, little mouse. And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that will change that.” Emotion purges Nadia’s voice of its borrowed diction, softens the vowels into a purr, its polished lilt into a song.

The declaration fills Mei Fong, swims through artery and marrow, amplifies until there is no room for pain. She knows it’s temporary. Her anxieties will return, skittering spider-legged through the night to suckle from dreams. But for one moment, Mei Fong’s heart is too large for her chest, each beat compressing ventricle against ribs, squeezing the breath from her. The enormity of her love overwhelms.

“You’re important to me, too.” Mei Fong smiles with borrowed confidence, eager to divert her lover’s worries down safer tributaries.

“Did you just ask my daughter to marry you?” Mei Fong’s mother quips, her laughter a sledgehammer.

Both girls jump back, guilty.

“Auntie!” Nadia’s voice is chocolate and brandy, aural endorphin. “I didn’t expect you to be the—well, I was hoping your daughter would ask me instead.”

“Maybe.” Mei Fong blanches, not at the concept but at the attention. Her smile is slow and sweet like rising bread. “Um. I’m going to go… do… stuff. I mean, let’s eat. Yup. Food.”

 

THE MEAL IS pure extravagance.

Pork belly in the style of Cantonese char-siu, crisped skin glazed with caramel and star anise. Spare ribs, lustrous with spices, that have been steamed then fried so that they become a composite of textures. Diced spinach steeped in yogurt, cilantro, garam masala, and honeyed raisins. Portobello mushrooms weighted with bacon, melted gouda, and spots of red pepper.

At the sight of them, Nadia delivers all the right noises. She coos and marvels over their artistry, demands recipes with childish abandon, all while snatching tastes that were always hers.

The three banter between bites, surreptitiously mixing compliment with interrogation, analysis with laughter.

Mei Fong is careful to avoid the spell-soaked meat, although her lust for it suffuses every tendon. Her mother devours it fearlessly, of course, too potent to fear her own machinations.

“Are you sure you won’t have the pork?” Nadia asks, concerned.

Mei Fong’s mother answers for her daughter, tone playful but not entirely without teeth. “Oh, don’t mind Mei. She likes making things difficult for herself, sometimes.”

Mei Fong glares, spoons another mouthful of mushrooms onto her tongue, and says nothing.

“So,” says Mei Fong’s mother. “What possessed you to make my daughter so lonely? She complains about you spending too much time with that… what’s his name?”

“Ma!”

“Muthu?” Nadia breathes, hand fluttering to her throat. “Muthu’s just a… friend.”

Something in the texture of the air changes then, a shift, a silken weight that drips heavy as custard. It clutches at Nadia’s expression, tightens the line of her mouth and eyes before it smoothens her face into a sensual arrangement. Mei Fong breathes in sips.

“What happened?” she whispers, even though she knows and dreads the knowing.

“What you wanted.” Her mother remarks, tone bland. “She’s all yours now.”

She does not lie. The look that Nadia proffers Mei Fong carries none of its familiar elegance, only an unsubtle longing, a heat that burns instead of warms. As Mei Fong looks on, Nadia wets her lips, presents the curve of her tongue in shameless invitation.

“This—”

“—is what happens when you successfully cast a love spell.”

“Make it stop,” Mei Fong pleads. The wrongness of it claws at her breath.

“But you can ask her anything you want, make her do anything you desire. She is yours and only yours. Aren’t you, Nadia?”

Nadia bares a predatory smile as she pours out of her chair, sinuous, starved. Her hands lock around Mei Fong’s thighs. “Every last inch of me, Auntie.”

“See?”

Mei Fong chokes. “I don’t want her like this.”

Her mother shrugs, pitiless. “You can tell her to be something else, then. Something closer to what you remember or perhaps, something different. You can teach her. The spell makes people as pliant as puppies.”

“No.” Anguish, tasting of coin and marrow, bloats her protest. Mei Fong jolts backwards when Nadia cups the swell of her breast. “Nadia, please—”

Her lover answers with a smile so brazen that it makes Mei Fong’s cheeks burn scarlet. “It’s all right. I love you.”

“I love you.” Mei Fong shakes her head, grips Nadia’s wrists and pushes them down. “Ma, please. This is not what I want. I want the real Nadia. I need—”

“‘Real’ means she might cheat on you, might leave you.”

Mei Fong, dangerously close to tears, smiles limply. “I don’t care. This is worse. This is losing all of her.”

Her mother nods and, with the delicacy of a surgeon, shears slivers of meat from a curved rib. “Do you understand now? Hurt exists at the bones of every love, Mei. Most days, we don’t see it because we’re too busy with the skin and the meat. But, at the end of the feast, all that will be left is bone. You can take the potential away, but you’d take will too. The will to hurt is the same as the will to love.”

Wisdom imparted, the older woman proceeds to resolution. In murmurs, each syllable electric with starlight, Mei Fong’s mother tells her daughter precisely what to say.

 

“MEI, WHAT DID you just say?”

Mei Fong jolts her head upright, eyes wild. It is as though the world has nonchalantly welded two separate moments together with no concern for what had happened between, the change dizzying in its abruptness.

Nadia laughs with joy. “That’s … that’s incredibly sweet. But where did you even pick that up?”

“P-pick what up?”

“The poem, darling.

“I….”

Nadia turns to Mei Fong’s mother, throaty with a wicked delight. “Auntie, this is your fault, isn’t it?”

No answer, save for a serenely beatific smile and the sounds of silverware.

Nadia laughs again, louder still. A sickle-smile, all teeth and vulpine coyness as her voice uncoils:

“The moon tries every month in vain

To paint a picture of your face;

And, having failed to catch its grace,

Destroys the work, and starts again.”

“The Caurapañcāśikā. It was supposedly written by a brahma while he awaited punishment for daring to love a princess and, oh—” Shadows flood Nadia’s hawk-boned features. “Oh. I see what’s happening here. Did my father say something to you?”

Mei Fong, breathless, can only nod.

“Silly mouse.” A disdainful sniff. “You could have just asked me instead of going through all this trouble. Whatever he said? Complete horse manure.”

“But, Muthu….”

“I… hmm. I suppose if there’s anyone I can trust, it’s you two. Muthu’s gay, darling. And, unfortunately, very much a child of traditional Brahmin parents. We were working on a plan for him to come out to them. I guess I should have told you, but, you know. Privacy.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“Hush.” Nadia leans over, presses lips to the apex of Mei Fong’s skull. “I should have let you in on it earlier. Anyway. Is everything clear now? Are we on the same page?”

“Yes.” A microscopic squeak.

“Good.” Nadia grins. “So, Auntie, what’s for dessert? And will you please let me help you this time? I can’t win your favor if you don’t give me the opportunity.”

They leave for the kitchen, one straight-backed like cinnamon, the other tiny and supple. Mei Wong’s love for them roars through her veins. She will lose them, one day. To sickness, to temptation, to death’s patient courting. But, for now, they are hers to hold and savor, to adore until memory surrenders to silence.

There is a reason witchcraft comes so easily to mothers, Mei Fong decides, smiling. It is because they are charged with knowing their children, and what greater magic is there than knowing what resides in the bones of another?

“Mei! Save me! Your mother is asking difficult questions about lesbian sex!”

“Coming! I mean … oh. Never mind.”

From issue two of See the Elephant, Love and War in the Slipstream
Click here to purchase the whole magazine in ebook or PDF format
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© Cassandra Khaw, 2016

CCassandra Khaw photo 2 webassandra Khaw is the business developer for Singaporean video games publisher Ysbryd Games. When not otherwise elbow-deep in emails, she writes fiction of varying length. Her work can be found or is forthcoming at The Dark, Terraform, Mythic Delirium, Shimmer, and more.

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One Response to “The Bones of the Matter, fiction by Cassandra Khaw”

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  1. omma says:

    Succulent and delicious! Lovely writing – thank you!

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