"Pisan Zapra"

For Christmas of 2014, my in-laws gave me a fascinating little book called Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World by Ella Frances Sanders (10 Speed Press, 2014). As I leafed through it the next morning, I chuckled to find gezellig, which is my favorite untranslatable Dutch word, and came to a dead stop four pages later at pisan zapra, which is listed as a Malay noun meaning "the time needed to eat a banana."

Now that's a title for a short story, I thought, and it seemed obvious that the story it was a title for would be set in Malaysia, and would unfold over a period of no more than a couple of minutes -- the amount of time needed to eat a banana.

I did some basic research and discovered that there is disagreement as to whether or not the expression is legitimate Malay. Some sources say yes, while others -- including numerous native speakers of Malay -- say they've never heard it.

As I continued poking around the Internet, I stumbled across some fascinating information about a vengeful vampiric spirit known as the pontianak. In Malay folklore, the pontianak are said to be the ghosts of women who died in pregnancy, generally depicted as pale-skinned beauties with long hair, dressed all in white. A pontianak usually announces its presence through the cries of a baby; if the cry is soft, it means that the spirit is close. Although it lives in the trunk of the pokok pisang -- the banana tree -- its presence is sometimes accompanied by the fragrance of the plumeria flower, followed afterward by a terrible stench. The pontianak identify their prey, I learned, by sniffing out clothes left outdoors to dry. (For this reason, some Malays refuse to leave any article of clothing outside their residences overnight.) A pontianak kills its victims by digging into their stomachs with its sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. If you have your eyes open when a pontianak is near, it will suck them out of your head, and, when the pontianak goes after a man, it may rip out the poor slob's sex organs with its hands.

So, pisan zapra and the pontianak. Who could ask for anything more? This turned out to be one of those stories that pretty much writes itself -- or perhaps it was a vengeful Malay spirit that guided my fingers on the keyboard....

In any case, I wrote the story and submitted it to AHMM editor Linda Landrigan, and I am absolutely delighted that she selected it for publication during the magazine's 60th-anniversary year. Although I've been publishing in EQMM pretty regularly since my first appearance in its pages in 1968, this is my first appearance in Hitchcock's since 1986 -- half the magazine's life (and almost half my life) ago. It's great to be back!

The lovely pen-and-ink illustration is by regular AHMM interior artist Linda Weatherly. After the story appeared in print, AHMM's Senior Assistant Editor Jackie Sherbow put me in touch with Linda, and I bought the original drawing, which is now framed and hanging on the wall of my home office.

In 2018, AHMM/EQMM associate editor Jackie Sherbow and Asimov's Science Fiction and Analog Science Fiction and Fact associate editor Emily Hockaday selected "Pisan Zapra" for inclusion in Terror at the Crossroads, the first in what will hopefully become a series of reprint anthologies from the four Dell magazines. On October 19, they tweeted a brief excerpt from the story -- "Somewhere nearby, a baby began to cry, so softly the sound was barely audible above the rustling of the leaves of the banana trees.... There were no other houses nearby...." -- and selected a haunting image to illustrate it; that's the image over there at the left.

If you'd like to read the story for free, it was reprinted in June of 2021 in issue number five of Indelible, the online literary magazine of the American University of Dubai.

In February of 2022, "Pisan Zapra" was read by actress Amelia Ryan as an episode of the Mystery Rat's Maze podcast; you can listen to it for free here.

And in September 2023, it was included in the anthology distributed to attendees at the annual Creatures, Crimes, and Creativity Conference in Columbia, Maryland, where I appeared on three panels and read at C3's Noir at the Bar.

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