by Nadia Mikail
The langsuir is a woman who has died giving birth. Malay folktales have a multitude of women featured as wrathful, devious spirits: the hantu kum-kum thrives on the blood of virgin girls, desperate to maintain her youth even in death; the hantu kopek lures men to cheat on their wives, jealous that their afterlife contains no husband of their own; the pontianak goes after the people who have wronged her, tearing out their organs.
People usually shake their heads, they think: oh, well, that is the envious, terrible nature of Eve. Personally I think it is more how humans are treated in life that influences how they behave in death, and in this culture the women are angrier than most.
Among our kind the langsuir is particularly feared. My very own grandmother was Kept by a langsuir in her youth, a particularly furious one who attacked children who looked like her own. My grandmother told me: keep away from women having difficult births. They can sense you there. After death, they will rise up, and find you. We don’t know what it is that attracts them to owls. Maybe it is our ability to spread our wings and travel quick. Maybe it is our ancient predatory knowledge of how to seek out prey silently in the dead of night.
Maybe, it is that our cry sounds achingly like a lonely infant’s.
Whatever it is, the langsuir rises from their grave, 40 days after their death, and looks for an owl to Keep. They enter our soft, warm bodies – we can feel their souls, restless, nestling somewhere inside our beating hearts. They use us to fly undetected from house to house. They use us to seek out prey. A disembodied woman’s head floating around, entrails and spinal cord dangling from it, draws a little bit more attention than a predator might want. An owl, nestling peacefully in the branch overhead, is par for the course in our villages.
Langsuir look for their still-born children. They died while delivering them, and have not come to terms with the fact that they are dead, and their child too. They go from house to house, searching. If the baby in the house is not theirs, they drain it of blood. Why should this mother get to have a healthy, living child? something inside them seems to wail.
The only way to subdue a langsuir is to stab a nail in the very middle of what used to pass for a neck.
But – here it is. We come to my story. We come to a month ago. It had been years since my grandmother was Kept. I had grown careless. I had grown careless and soft-hearted, and the night when my langsuir gave birth I was watching through the crack in between the curtains.
What drew me to her was her loneliness.
Owls are solitary creatures by nature. Maturity achieved, we kiss our families goodbye and set out to find somewhere of our own. So we are used to this. But humans – they are not bred for loneliness. They nestle into their families’ hearth every night, reveling in the comfort and warmth. During an event like birth, a tragedy like death, the whole family is there, a collective bosom to draw strength from. When you see a young human struggling, sobbing in pain, bringing a child into this life alone, something inside even an owl wants to counteract this oddity. I could not leave.
She was sobbing. “Please.” I could hear this clearly, and, “Mama.”
There was no one to hear her but the cold, sharp moonlight and myself, my talons gripping onto the branch in sympathy.
She was so young. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the birth was difficult. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when she gasped her last breath, weakly grasping at her still, silent child. For a moment, her soul filled the entire space around us, lost, confused, looking, and then it withdrew into her spent body. Somebody would find it in the morning, I hoped. I hoped she would not have to rot, her blood leaking in the floorboards, for days.
I spread my wings and flew away. I felt it as much as I wanted to deny it: the moment her soul met mine, that quick-flash of claiming. She would remember me.
I spent the next 40 days quietly. I did go to my grandmother, and I asked her what I should do. My grandmother’s eyes are milky-white but they focused on me and said, “Forgive yourself in the end.”
“I can’t hide. She’ll find me, won’t she,” I said, more of a statement than a question, and her silence was sorrow and an answer, all at once.
The 40th day I flew to the graveyard, and waited. Better to meet this head-on. Her soul came furious out of the earth the very minute of the night she’d died, forty days prior. But unlike that night it was no longer young and lost: it was older, now, somehow a hundred years older, and it was angry.
She made a beeline for me and I felt my wings, my talons, my ears, my beating heart: all mine but somehow not wholly mine anymore. I felt myself extend my wings, this cold, fierce joy of flying but not a moment to recognise it: she made straight to where we heard a baby’s cry. She left me outside when she went in through an open window. I heard her scream of despair when she realised it was not her child.
When we were done that night and she had gone back to the graveyard I slept, exhausted, in a nearby tree. This would be my life, for as long as she sought her child.
The next night was the same, and the third. On the fourth night I asked her, in our head: What is your name? Innocuous enough.
I felt her hesitance. But in the end she answered, curt: Amina. We reached the house then and she left me in a tree. She cried as she drained a child dry. When she wrapped her soul around mine again it was stained with blood, darker than usual, as if in remembering her name she remembered human sin.
A week of this and the villagers had started talking. There had not been a langsuir for a long time in the village, but not long enough that they had forgotten what their grandmothers had taught: Close your children’s windows at night. Sleep beside them. Pray over their cots. The women armed themselves with verses. The men armed themselves with nails.
I thought that I might find some relief in the glimmer of hope of my release. But the thought of her being chained to a man, subservient through the metal in her neck, unsettled me. Her soul flew alongside mine, inside my beating heart. I could feel her despair, her wrath, her loneliness. If I understood anything about humans, it was that loneliness drove them to insanity. Even worse: loneliness drove them to seek comfort, in any way they could get it.
I said, Amina. In my owl-voice the syllables came out fluting, lengthened, rounded: Ahh. Mee. Naa. You do not have to—
You do not understand my pain, she said, sharp. Her voice broke on the Malay word for pain, sakit. How can you?
How could I? I was animal, and so was she in essence, but not being human in my animalness I did not understand the pain of her loneliness, even if I could feel it pulsing in her. It was my way of life. It was what had cursed her to death. I said nothing, my soul silent alongside hers as we swooped across the sky in my body, towards another wooden house with windows an unfortunate older sibling had left open.
Later on, as the sky slowly shifted to dawn’s light, before she left my body for the graveyard, she said, I would have named her Nina. I think she was trying to make me understand.
I would never know, though, because the next night we walked right into a trap.
As we flew towards the house where a baby cried I could already feel the wrongness of it all, generations of instinct honed by living in an ecosystem where it was eat or be eaten, but Amina did not. Humans did not usually have to eat or be eaten: they survived by helping the pack survive. Not alone. Their prey instincts were long outgrown. I tried to transmit my uneasiness to her but she brushed me off, a new moon bringing her new fury with it. She swooped right through the wide-open door — too open, I tried to warn her, my beak opening in a long, hollow cry, eerily like the infant’s inside — she did not see the men lying in wait. They held a long, sharp nail.
Amina’s body regrew into normalcy, quick as anything: her slender limbs regenerated, her sharp vicious teeth evening out and her skin reshaping around her. She was terribly naked and fragile, slumped onto the floor as if she had forgotten how to use legs. Panting, in pain, she looked just like how she had, the night she’d died: vulnerable, alone even now in a crowd of men.
“Ah,” one of the men said, in a cold rage. “Not so brave now, are you?”
She could only stare around her, mute. With the nail they’d sentenced her to an afterlife of docility.
“You’re Pak Jah’s kid,” another said wonderingly. “The one who died some time back.”
Yet another said, “The shame he felt when you got knocked up! Who got you into that mess, huh?”
The first one said, “Well it doesn’t matter. You’re Adnan’s problem now. Good man, Adnan. Fast reflexes.”
Adnan stepped forward, proud. “I will deal with her,” he said, and the men nodded, understanding the full implications of that sentence. I was surprised, then, that they did not mean to torture her more, inflict violence for what she had done to their children— but then I realised that they considered this fair play, that they considered themselves good men. They would not bury her quietly, give her soul rest. She did not deserve that. They would sentence her to an afterlife as Adnan’s private slave, and in doing so wash their hands of whatever he meant to do with that.
“Come along,” Adnan said easily. Amina crawled after him like a dog. They left the house and she looked up at the tree I was perched on. Perhaps she was thinking something for me to hear, but I could not hear her soul anymore. But later that night I heard her sob, after Adnan had fallen asleep. She was mute, thanks to the nail, but when any human cries, you can hear it, I have learnt. There are stifled noises. There are human sounds.
I was not chained to Amina anymore by soul but I was, by soul all the same. How could I leave now? I watched her shuffle around Adnan dead-eyed in the day, cooking, washing, cleaning; I heard her ragged intakes of breath in the night, after the bed had finished creaking. With her human body came her fully human memories, and it seemed like she wept for her child and what she’d done as a vengeful spirit just as much as she wept for her new reality. Owls do not understand loneliness but they do understand sadness. With the knowledge owls have comes all manner of sadnesses.
I did not spend all hours at Adnan’s house. I hunted and rested and enjoyed my recovered freedom. But I returned every night. When she cried I called out to her, sorrowful. I might not understand loneliness but I understand not letting someone be alone.
My sleep was restless. In my hollowed out tree I kept my eyes closed, but my mind wandered, and wondered.
I watched Amina, on one of Adnan’s trips out of town, shuffle a little mound of dirt in his garden. Nina, her mouth shaped.
She did not stop there. In the end she’d marked eleven more, for each child she’d taken from their parents.
She lay in the dirt and howled, silent.
In the end I brought Amina the poison berries of the belladonna plant. Without Adnan, her owner, her spirit would either vengefully roam again or be laid to rest, it was her choice — perhaps to my detriment, but her choice. I laid them on the counter, my beak reaching through her cracked-open kitchen window, and made to fly. Then, on second thought, I moved them to his mug. Amina could not actively harm her master — those were the rules of her slavery — but she could passively overlook the poison in his drink. All she had to do was add cocoa and hot water, and she would be free.
I waited outside. It was nearing a new day. Amina came into the kitchen early to warm up the water, to iron Adnan’s clothes and start preparing the meals for the day. She was limping, I noticed, from the night before. Did I tell you? That I think it is more how humans are treated in this life that influence how they are in death. Did I tell you? That women in this culture are angrier than most.
The hantu kum-kum, desperate to cling onto something the culture values more than anything: attractiveness in a woman. The hantu kopek, bereft of a marriage that equated survival. The pontianak: assaulted, left to die.
Amina walked into the kitchen and started boiling water from the tap. As she waited she opened the cabinets, deciding on Adnan’s lunch, his dinner — spirits did not eat. When the kettle sang she brought his cup over, and made to pour water into it. She stopped.
There was a pause as long as time itself. Eve, and her apple. Amina knew as well as I did the rules of her slavery: her grandmother was the same as all grandmothers everywhere, passing down lessons immemorial.
The langsuir opened the door, taking the cup with her. She stepped onto the greenness of the grass, watched for a moment the tiny unmarked graves, breathed in deep the freshness of a new day,
—thank you, her mouth shaped— I could hear her, like she was in my soul again—
and poured the cup’s contents into the garden. She crushed the berries with a slipper. There was a moment when time was suspended and Amina looked destroyed and healed, all at once—
Then dawn broke through and her limbs slowly, slowly started disintegrating, flaking away as the sun broke through, as if disappearing with the night.
The last I saw of her was her smile.
I do not know if it was because she was redeemed, by not choosing death; or if it was because her soul had found peace because she was finally known. She was not alone.
I fly through the night’s currents. I think of her often.
About the Author
Nadia Mikail is a full-time houseplant owner, and part-time investigative journalist of what London’s pigeons are planning when they flock together like that. She is mostly unsuccessful at (but still hopeful about) both these occupations. She is from Sarawak, where the air is always sweeter, the food is always tastier, and the pigeons are considerably less bold.
About the Narrator
Fash Wahab is an island girl from sunny Singapore, who loves cooking up a storm in the kitchen and talking to animals.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.