by JOYCE CHNG
First appeared on Future Fire (Issue 2022.63)
Hear this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
"You don’t have to cut open your veins,” the old woman warned me, “just to let them feed on you.”
It was the day after Qing Ming, when the tombs were swept and the visitors had already left in their cars. The hill of the graves was buried in its usual silence, filled only by the sound of wind and the skitter of spirit voices.
“My blood’s treacle,” I said quietly to the elder. “Like spun sugar.”
“Our lives are not a perpetual Spring Festival,” the crone whispered and hobbled down the leaf-covered path, signaling the end of the conversation. She was always like this. I had grown used to her ways. The uncles who swept the tombs and kept the graveyard respected her, often giving her cigarettes and glass bottles she often hung on trees.
With a sigh, I drove off on my moped. I would be back again to seek her healing and counsel.
In the evenings, I sang to the crowd, strumming my guitar to the evening rush-hour traffic. I bared my veins and they fed. I felt good and bad at the same time. Their eyes glistened above their masks, gleaming at the prospect of a good feed.
My blood was treacle. Sweet. They lapped it up like sugar.
“Don’t you feel tired after they feed on you?” Anna asked when I packed up for the night. She had insisted she accompany me when I busked on Singapore’s streets.
“Yes,” I said and took a sip of the isotonic drink.
“Then why do you keep doing this?” Anna sounded exasperated tonight. It was the full moon. She might turn into her true form later. I kept a close watch on her eyes.
“And this… after the virus has ravaged all of us? Why, Dawn, why?” she continued, relentless, like a wolf pursuing her prey.
“You’re so pessimistic,” I said curtly.
Even the mildest cases experienced Change. Some grew powerful. Some gained magical strength. Some developed animal traits.
Theories of the virus had percolated, gained popularity and then disappeared as quickly as they appeared. Flu. Cold. Disease. Change. Everyone still wore masks now, afraid of the virus and the change it had brought.
For me, my blood became sweet. Honey. Treacle. And they fed from me even when I bared my soul to the unkind world.
“I don’t care if you were a singer or a writer or a poet,” Anna growled even as black fur receded back into her skin. I cradled her in my arms. She shivered after her Change, her body trembling from the clash of cells, muscles and transformation.
I kissed her sweaty brow. I didn’t care or thought I didn’t, because my voice was my life. Wanting to create was my blood. I wanted to sing. I wanted to write.
“They feed from you,” Anna said. “I don’t like it, Dawn.”
“Don’t worry. I know how to protect myself,” I lied.
I remembered watching the spun-sugar artist when he performed his craft in front of admiring eyes. He often showed up during Spring Festival, at the big fair, spinning molten amber sugar into delicate-looking dragons, phoenixes and goldfish. The air smelled sweet, like burnt sugar. The artist shaped fins, feathers and scales like magic. When I bit into the dragon, sweetness burst in my mouth.
The artist loved making the golden figurines. He also loved the sounds of the admiring crowd.
When I grew up, music and words were my world. I loved making them. And like the spun-sugar artist, I loved the sounds of the crowd.
The old woman was at her usual spot amongst the graves of old colonial Singapore. The spirits chattered around her. They smelled me and salivated. She glared at them. Cowed by her stare, they fell back.
“You back for your cleansing ritual, ah?” the elderly lady said. She was the graveyard’s guardian. The tomb sweepers gave her a wide berth whenever she was out and about on her business.
I removed my mask. “Yes,” I nodded.
“Ah, today you show your true face,” she chuckled, amused. “Most of them don’t. Do you feel safe around me?”
“Strange. The spirits are afraid of me.”
“You guard the graves.”
“Pity. I’m not usually that frightening.”
She lit incense sticks with her beaten-up lighter. The sandalwood smoke wafted over me, creating a thin layer of protection over me. I sighed. I could feel myself healing already.
“So much damage,” the old woman tsk-tsked. “They literally gouged you out.”
“They were hungry.”
“You need to protect yourself more often. Predators will eat and they don’t care about your life.”
She patched up the holes with the sandalwood smoke and incantations. They only worked for two weeks. Then I would be back again.
While I sat feeling the effects of the smoke infused with my blood, the grave guardian told me stories about Singapore, before the virus came, before Change came. So much joy. So much beauty. But what was normal didn’t remain normal. Things went back to normal after that. People still wanted to feed.
What had changed were us. We changed.
I sang once more at the quay where the entertainment thrived and the vampires fed even as they dined on rare steaks and Pinot Noir. They gave me money. I needed it. They gave me shelter. I loved it.
The one-room apartment I shared with Anna was cosy enough. Having my own piece of air was an illusory joy. Anna made living a thing of beauty. Plants were everywhere in our little home. She placed pots of herbs on the ledge where the sunlight flooded in like a golden sheet. Mint. Rosemary. Lavender. Basil. The air was often fragrant with their sweet and sharp scents. We even salvaged wooden crates from the nearby supermarket for shelves and impromptu tables. We had tea-lights all over the apartment. In the dark, they glowed like tiny suns. This was our home, where we could be normal, relaxed, happy.
When I came back that night, Anna was not home. She had not been home for days now. She now craved being in the open, in the rare forest fragments. I was afraid I had lost her, lost her to the change within her.
Would I be lost too?
Suddenly feeling a wave of dizziness, I collapsed on the sofa. The vampires had fed hard tonight. But at least I had money to pay for my rent and bills.
My skin crawled. It felt as if it was inflamed.
I burned. I was on fire.
Then I caught something golden, gleaming down my arm.
Golden liquid flowed down open wounds. I gasped. I was criss-crossed with gold, with amber liquid that smelled like burnt sugar.
“Old lady, can you save them? Please?” the wolf said to the grave guardian. “They are dying.”
The grave guardian gazed sadly at the emaciated figure before her. A spider-web of golden streaks covered the skin, dripped down the thighs.
“Aiyah, they are just too far gone,” the old lady said, shaking her head. “They should have stopped baring the veins to the jiang shi.”
“Is it too late to save them? Please, auntie, please save them.”
The grave guardian stared back at the black wolf. A human’s eyes gazed back at her.
“I told Dawn to protect themselves. Our lives were too fragile to feed a world that wants to eat us.”
“And look at them now. So weak, no blood at all.”
The old lady lit her incense sticks and readied her incantations.
“I will see what I can do,” she declared. The spirits shrank at the tone of her voice.
Then she sang down the skies, the earth and the stars. The sandalwood smoke wrapped the figure like a gentle loving cocoon.
And there was silence amongst the graves.
I came to and stared into Anna’s golden eyes.
You need to stop feeding them, the wolf seemed to plead.
Please stop, I beg you.
I sang to the crowd.
I needed to.
My golden blood flowed inside me, singing, dancing, glowing.
The wounds grew bigger.
I beg you.
The old woman shook her head.
“The sandalwood smoke can’t protect you forever.”
I sang because I had treacle blood.
I would keep on baring my veins to them.
I didn’t know why.
When I visited the graveyard, the old crone was no longer there. The uncles told me that she was “just gone” like that. Like incense smoke. She left me a present, apparently. They came back with bundle of sandalwood incense sticks.
In the wind, I heard her gentle laughter.
Joyce Chng's fiction has appeared in The Apex Book of World SF II, We See A Different Frontier, Cranky Ladies of History, Accessing The Future, The Future Fire and Anathema Magazine. Joyce also co-edited THE SEA IS OURS: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia with Jaymee Goh. Fire Heart, a YA fantasy under Scholastic Asia, is published in 2022. (Pronouns: she/her, they/their)
Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.