In the once-coastal city of Temasek, in the world of the living and the dead, lived the families who fled from wars of their homelands and sank roots in the fertile soil of this new land. There were the elderly wolf ladies who sorted herbs with unpronounceable names and smelled of earth and fragrances that reached the brain like gentle caresses. There were the dhole-people, who ran the tea-houses and served the most excellent meat buns, grilled golden-brown to perfection. Then there were the fox-women who wore their skins inside out and taught by their clan grandmothers and mothers to growl. Between the sea-salted city of Temasek and where the ravines of runoff hill water divided the series of former buildings, abandoned flats and stupas, lived the buffalo herders who let their buffalos graze on the gotu kola that grew fat, lush and green. There was a handsome boy who saw things differently. The dreamer, the rest of the herder families called him affectionately, for he would sit on a moss-covered boulder – his boulder – and stare out into the cloud-covered towers of Temasek and into the ravines where the water flowed.
Now this is where I come in, because my amma and ammaachi taught me how to growl, and because I have a story, my story to tell. I growled and stood my ground. I growled, because growling is my voice.
I loved exploring the fields where the gotu kola grows and I often picked the emerald-green half-moon leaves for my ammaachi because she loved to eat them fresh as they are. I loved the streams of runoff hill water for their sheer coldness when I dipped my toes in. I laughed and the sky laughed with me. This was where I shed my skin and experienced the world with my other senses. My hands and my feet. My bare skin. I let my hair down and let it lift, flutter in the wind. I laughed and the wind howled with me.
Ammaachi cautioned me often that if I laughed, someone would pick it up and follow me back. And sure I did. Someone heard me. He was the handsome boy who stared at me from a distance. I growled, but he didn’t seem to mind. I growled louder, putting on my skin, and darted away, prickly all over.
The value of growling, amma told me, is priceless, pure and bright as sunfire. Remember who you are, ponnu. Remember to growl from your heart.
I washed the vallaarai thoroughly, for ammaachi hated them gritty and tasting of earth. I made dinner, chopped the gotu kola finely and mixed them with sliced chilli, sambal and lime juice bought from the market. The elderly fox ladies taught me many recipes too. From them and ammaachi, I embraced the pleasure of cooking. In the privacy of the kitchen, I shed my skin and I cooked with my bare fingers, turning mixtures into salads and curries. I thrilled at the touch of spices on my skin. My fingers sank into the cool chopped leaves. I licked them clean, my tongue tingling with hot and sour. I grew heady with the fragrance of before we scooped them into our mouths. We talked about the times before Temasek, before we sank roots in this city. We talked about the times when the fox-people clans roamed confident, free. Later, we had betel leaves and nuts, and cumin to cool our bodies and sweeten our breath
The handsome herder boy followed me back. He picked up my laughter. He wandered into Temasek boldly, and knocked at every door. When he came to our door, amma let out a loud growl. He was nothing but politely persistent. He asked for my name.
For the next few weeks, he was an ardent suitor. He bought me chappals, chappals intricately woven and light. He bought me saris, edged with golden and alive like star fire. He bought me vallaarai, freshly picked and gathered in three bunches. Ammaachi’s heart melted. I think it had been waiting to melt for a long time. She kept it hardened, after fleeing from a war-torn homeland. Now this boy was melting it with the intensity of kitchen heat.
For the first weeks after the wedding was a dream. The ancestors called it a honeymoon. But there is no honey on the moon. The herder treated me well, like a queen, like a rani from the story books. I walked on intricately-pattern chappals, on human feet. I wore the saris that felt like silk and glittered like the touch of the sun. I cooked for my in-laws the dishes of my people. I made sambaram, the refreshing mixture of yoghurt, water and green chillies.
“I love you,” the herder boy – now my husband – would say.
“Show me,” I replied. “Show me.”
My skin, I kept in a mahogany chest. Then the urges started. The yearning. It crept back in, like a persistent puppy. I was born to run. I was born to sing with the wind. I was not supposed to stay indoors all the time.
I growled and I was myself.
My skin was burnt.
I came back from a night stroll to find my skin, my real skin, the skin given by my family and my ancestors, burnt. I smelled burning hair, and my human skin screamed, jolted as if it was touched by feral electricity from the streets lamps lining Temasek’s streets. My chest was open, my belongings strewn all over. My skin was gone. It was gone. I flew into a rage and went after my husband who did not deserve to be my husband. I bit into him and he screamed. Human teeth do inflict a lot of pain. I miss my sharp teeth. He screamed and he screamed. I growled and said, never come back again.
And I ran.
After that, I returned to my family, to my amma and ammaachi, who welcomed me back and guarded the house with their teeth and their growls. My grandmother hardened her heart again and my amma howled with anger. For a long time, my family was angry and their anger refused to die. Without my skin, I remained vulnerable, a human with bare skin and blunt teeth and feet. But amma and ammaachi vowed to protect me. They loved me still.
Of course, I picked my ears open for news from the other side. Apparently, Jitu, my ex-husband’s best friend, wanted a fox-wife too. But he failed, the fox-girl bit him, and he later hanged himself. The tragedy stunned me and left me speechless. I trembled with unvoiced fear and anger. Perhaps it was a divide, not only in the landscape, but in our heads.
Fox-women are not chattel, not objects of affection. We are people too. No wonder our grandmothers teach us how to growl and growl back. No wonder we teach our daughters to growl and bite, to stand their ground and guard their bodies.
I growl, and here I am.
Born in Singapore but a global citizen, Joyce Chng writes mainly science fiction (SFF) and YA fiction. She likes steampunk and tales of transformation/transfiguration. Her fiction has appeared in anthologies such as We See A Different Frontier, The Apex Book of World SF II and Cranky Ladies of History. She can also be found at A Wolf’s Tale.
The painting of a young woman from Kerala by Raja Ravi Varma is in the public domain according to Wikimedia Commons.