Pisan Zapra

originally published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (November 2016)

Luxuriating in the early-morning heat on the veranda, with the Titiwangsa Mountains looming high above the leaves of the pokok pisang trees that ringed their property, Madeline Steele selected a banana from the bowl of fruit on the glass table, peeled it slowly and savored that first delicious bite. There was no need to hurry. She had nothing to do today. Truth be told, she rarely had anything to do, out here on the edge of Kuala Lumpur, except for those occasional evenings when Roger brought a colleague home for tea. Even then, Cook prepared the meal, and their ayah Sarah set the table and cleaned up afterward. Madeline’s only job was to be decorative, to smile and laugh at the men’s jokes and pretend that she and Roger were happily married.

There were ripe bananas in the kitchen, but Cook knew that Madeline preferred them just before they ripened, their skin still veined a delicate, almost translucent green.

She chewed the firm flesh, not yet begun to soften, and a memory from the distant past tickled the back of her mind.

She had been a child in the Lake District of England — six or seven, perhaps, certainly no more than eight — and she had pinched one of Mummy’s sewing needles and carefully stuck it through the skin of an unopened banana, again and again, each time working it left and right as gently as she could, edge to edge. Later, when Daddy finished his eggs and bacon and reached for a postprandial banana and peeled it, as he did every morning — “Potassium!” he announced without fail, as Archimedes must have announced “Eureka!” in the bath — the fruit fell into his hands, already sliced into inch-long sections as if by magic. He had been absolutely amazed, and when Madeline showed him how she had accomplished the miracle, he had hugged her close and petted her and called her his little Houdini.

But that was four decades ago, and both Daddy and Mummy had passed on long since. Now Madeline lived in Malaysia, where Roger was a mid-level executive with Petronas and had an office on the 41st floor of Tower 1 — only a few steps from the Skybridge connecting the twin spires of what had been for six years the tallest buildings in the world — and she had no other family left but him.

She had wanted children, of course, but Roger’s career came first, and took them from outpost to outpost across the years when perhaps a child might have been possible for them. She had never been a beautiful woman, Madeline, but she had been pretty once, surely she had. Now, nearing 50, whatever prettiness she had had had been baked out of her by the tropical heat and the sun, leaving behind the tired, middle-aged petroleum wife she saw when she studied her reflection in her morning mirror.

Madeline allowed herself a small bite of her banana and gazed out across the garden, so lovingly tended by Agung, Sarah’s husband. The air was redolent with the scent of plumeria, and she wondered if Agung had planted some, or if she was merely imaging the smell after all that Sarah had told her.

Sarah stood beneath the arching fronds of the banana trees, plucking Roger’s undershorts from the rattan basket at her feet and pinning them to the line that stretched from a rusty nail driven into the back wall of the house all the way across the yard to the nearest of the trees.

Madeline heard a noise behind her, Roger emerging from within for his morning coffee. Twenty years ago — ten, even — she would have turned to greet him, but he had taught her the uselessness of such an overture, and she had learned that lesson as she had learned so many others. He was dressed for work, in an immaculate three-piece charcoal gray suit with an almost imperceptible pinstripe, and he took his place at the table and picked up the folded copy of yesterday’s Times that had been left there for him without so much as a glance in her direction. If he had said “Good morning,” she would have found it as extraordinary as if he had said “Potassium!” or “Eureka!”

She poured him a cup of kopi from the carafe on the bamboo tray. She herself was drinking teh tarik, the frothy local “pulled tea.”

Somewhere nearby, a baby began to cry, so softly the sound was barely audible above the rustling of the leaves of the banana trees. Roger looked up from his paper, annoyed by the sound. There were no other houses nearby. Perhaps one of the servants was looking after a child this morning? He had not given permission for such an invasion of his territory. He would have to speak to the ayah about this.

Madeline took a sip of her tea. The flavors of oolong and milk and banana made a pleasant mélange in her mouth.

When Roger returned his attention to the editorial page without so much as a word, she gathered her courage and broke the silence that lay thick as a London fog between them.

“Do you even know her name?” she asked softly.

He looked up from his coffee, startled by the unexpected interruption. “Whose name?” he said.

“Sarah’s daughter.”

His brow furrowed. “Sarah?”

“Our ayah,” she explained patiently. “Do you know her daughter’s name?”

“Why would I know the ayah's daughter’s name?” He glanced at his watch.

“Sarah has been telling me the most fascinating legend,” said Madeline, apparently changing the subject. “About the pontianak. They are the ghosts of women who died while pregnant. Although I’m not sure Nor could really be called a woman. After all, she was only 15.”

“I have no idea what you’re on about,” Roger frowned. “Who is Nor?”

Madeline nibbled at her banana. “Nor was Sarah’s daughter. I say ‘was’ because she’s dead now. Someone strangled her last week, the poor girl.”

“That’s very sad,” said Roger, sipping coffee. He seemed distracted and checked his watch again, in a hurry to be gone, although his driver wasn’t due for another half an hour.

“The pontianak are beautiful, pale-skinned apparitions with long flowing hair. They live inside the trunks of the banana trees during the day, and, when they appear, they’re dressed all in white.”

“That’s very interesting, I’m sure,” said Roger, draining his cup and setting it down with an uncharacteristic clatter.

“According to the legend,” Madeline went on, pouring him some more, “they kill their victims by digging into their stomachs with their sharp fingernails and devouring their organs. Sometimes, when a pontianak takes revenge against a man, it rips out his” — her cheeks flushed — “his private parts with its hands. If your eyes are open when a pontianak is near, it will suck them out of your head.”

Roger took a long swallow from his refilled cup and grimaced.

“Is something the matter, dear?” she asked him, taking another small bite of her banana.

He hunched over, one hand pressed to his stomach. “What’s wrong with this damned coffee,” he growled.

“Tell me about Nor,” she said calmly.

He pushed his cup away. It tipped over, spilling the last drops of black kopi into the saucer. “There’s nothing to tell,” he groaned.

She chewed and swallowed. “I think there is,” she said. “Sarah says there is.”

“The girl came on to me,” he gasped. “I told her I wasn’t interested, but she kept at me and kept at me, until — ”

“Until?” said Madeline, her eyes glistening as if she were a child listening to a bedtime story.

“My eyes!” Roger cried, cupping his hands to his head and beginning to shiver.

“You got her pregnant,” Madeline said, taking up the thread of the tale. Across the yard, Sarah was hanging Roger’s shirts from the clothesline, seemingly unaware of the drama unfolding on the veranda.

“What have you done to me?” Roger rasped, clawing frantically at his eyes.

Madeline raised her banana to her mouth for another bite, but hesitated as he toppled from his chair to the veranda’s tile floor. “You strangled her,” she said. “A 15-year-old girl.”

“She was going to tell,” Roger whimpered. “She wanted me to divorce you and marry her! Marry her! What was I supposed to — ”

His hands flew to his groin, and he screamed in excruciating pain. “Make it stop!” he wept. “Please, Madeline! Make it stop!”

He lay there, writhing, as she solemnly ate her banana and watched him.

After a while, the shaking stopped, and Roger’s body became perfectly still.

Madeline looked up and saw Sarah taking the laundry down from the line, although it couldn’t possibly have hung there long enough to dry. The scent of plumeria was gone, she noticed. In its place, the stench of something rotten was heavy in the air.

She took the little bottle from her pocket and studied it. It had been full when she had been given it and she had emptied its contents into Roger’s carafe of coffee, she thought, but she couldn’t quite remember. In any case, it was half full now of the dark viscous liquid Sarah and Agung had given her.

Half full, or half empty? That depends, she thought, remembering something she had heard long ago on the television, on whether one is drinking or pouring.

She finished the last bite of her banana, set the little bottle on the tray with Roger’s cup and saucer and the carafe, and went into the house to wash them all thoroughly, just to be safe, before dialing the police emergency number.