A biting collection of stories from a bold new voice. A young girl sees ghosts from her third eye, located where her belly button should be. A corporate lawyer feels increasingly disconnected from his job in a soulless 1200-storey skyscraper. And a one-dimensional yellow man steps out from a cinema screen in the hope of leading a three-dimensional life, but everyone around him is fixated only on the color of his skin. Welcome to Portable Curiosities. In these dark and often fantastical stories, Julie Koh combines absurd humour with searing critiques on modern society, proving herself to be one of Australia's most original and daring young writers.
|Publisher:||University of Queensland Press|
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By Julie Koh
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2016 Julie Koh
All rights reserved.
A lizard keeps following me around the house.
I tell the Tattoo Man about it when we're sitting on his verandah one afternoon. The Tattoo Man has puffy eyelids and a black beard that he strokes when in deep thought. He's in his rocking chair with a stray orange cat sitting at his feet, swishing its tail.
From where I'm sitting, I can see where the Tattoo Man starts but not where he ends. The verandah bends in the middle to accommodate his weight. If he were ever to embrace me in a bear hug, I'd disappear into the folds of his body and never be seen again.
The Tattoo Man looks like porcelain stained blue. His face is tattooed with scenes from the Yangtze River. A long boat drifts down his cheekbone, and small figures cast their fishing lines next to his right nostril. Blue dragons curl around his legs, and etched across his left arm is the face of a wrinkled, laughing man.
The Tattoo Man sets me homework.
'Watch the lizard, China Doll,' he says, looking over his wire glasses. 'Chase it into a corner. See what it does. See if it's scared of you.'
He calls me China Doll as a joke because I'm fat like he is. We both have big bellies. I laugh when he laughs, I rub my belly when he rubs his, and I yawn when he yawns. This is what we do on his verandah every afternoon when my mother thinks I am next door with Mrs Nolan eating devon and tomato sauce sandwiches.
The next day, I make my report about the lizard.
'It doesn't climb up walls,' I say. 'I chase it into corners but it won't go up to get away.'
'Good work,' says the Tattoo Man. 'That's a strange lizard.'
'I suppose so.'
'When you go home, use your special eye to look at it.'
'What special eye?' I tug on my T-shirt and turn my toes towards each other.
'Don't play dumb with me, little genius. My eye sees your eye.'
He points a finger at his forehead, and then at my belly.
At home, I find the lizard in the corner of our lounge room next to our TV.
I pull up my T-shirt and let the eye on my belly look at the lizard.
I see two things at once. My regular eyes see a lizard about the length of my forearm, its chest expanding and contracting as it breathes. But my other eye sees a little grey boy. His belly is swollen and he looks at me with saucer eyes.
I gape and he gapes.
I frown and he frowns.
I stick out my tongue and he sticks out his tongue.
He looks like a normal kid but I can't see any feet on him. His legs seem to fade away as they get closer to the floor.
I report to the Tattoo Man the next afternoon.
'As I suspected,' he says, folding up his newspaper. 'A bad case of black magic.'
* * *
Third eyes run in the family, on my mother's side.
They're usually located somewhere on the forehead but not in our family.
My third eye sits on my belly, where a belly button should be. It enjoys rolling around. I like this eye more than my other two. It winks at everyone in the room, even if it doesn't get any winks in return.
My older sister used to have an extra eye peeping from her left shoulder.
Her third eye had a combative gaze. It glared at people. It made her shrug her shoulder all the time, involuntarily. It was high maintenance.
The first time my mother realised something was not quite right with my sister was when she picked her up after her first day at primary school. My sister said she had spent the afternoon playing with new friends. They were amazing, she said. They could take their heads off and bounce them on the ground like basketballs.
There were other signs. My sister never wanted to be dropped off at the mangroves bordering the far side of the school, and she never used the school toilets.
My aunts reassured my mother that she would grow out of it – that a third eye dims as one gets older, and will only regain its sight when one is weak and old, dying in hospital, unable to push the devils away from one's bed.
My sister asked for her shoulder to be fixed. She wanted to be like the other girls. She wanted to explore the mangroves with them without being teased. She wanted to lick the salt from the tree leaves without seeing women perched on the branches above her, holding their severed heads out as gifts.
When she came home from the operation, I said: 'How does it feel?'
'How does what feel?'
'They're fine,' she said, rubbing the two on either side of her nose.
I wondered where they put the eye after they cut it out.
I wanted to ask her where it was, but her remaining eyes had a glassy film over them. She had passed into the world of the normal, where I couldn't reach her.
* * *
When my grandmother was alive, I liked watching TV with her in our lounge room.
One night, a beautiful black-haired lady came by, her white gown flowing. The bells on her wrists and ankles rang in my ears. The air around us smelled like jasmine.
The beautiful lady touched my grandmother's forehead. My grandmother didn't notice.
I rushed up to the lady and tried to kiss her cheek before she vanished. But I was too late.
My mother was standing in the doorway, and saw my lips touch the blank air.
'It was a beautiful lady with bells,' I said. 'I've never seen anyone so perfect.'
'A person who can see goddesses can also see devils,' said my mother. 'That third eye is a curse. We will have to close it or put it out.'
I didn't know what she meant by putting it out. It sounded like she wanted to leave it on the doorstep like a cat, cold and shivering. My third eye started to water.
'You keep that eye covered, do you hear?' said my mother. 'It isn't a thing that nice people talk about. It isn't decent, especially on a fat belly like that. You keep it to yourself.'
'Did you ever have a special eye?' I asked.
'Mine was on my chest, near my heart,' she said. 'It saw devils paint the walls of our house with the blood of the family cat. It saw car crashes the day before they happened. It saw the ghosts of women who'd been burnt to death in house fires. Nice little girls shouldn't be exposed to these things.'
'But they happen, don't they?'
'If this is the world, I don't want you to see it.'
* * *
Another reason my mother doesn't like third eyes is that she doesn't like excess. She likes order, cleanliness and special rules.
She gets rid of all the loose change in her purse, and she cuts all the fat off pork chops. Her hair, our furniture and our garden hedges are all arranged at right angles.
She is always in the midst of what she calls an eternal battle against flab. Every spare minute she is doing a sit-up. I count them with her.
She says it's better than yoga. Yoga is too slow. Yoga doesn't burn fat fast enough. Yoga, according to my mother, needs to be done at six times its prescribed speed, more in the style of karate.
My father's explanation for my mother is that she's highly strung. He says there is an old Italian master hovering on the ceiling of our house, on call to restring my mother when necessary, as if she were an expensive violin.
My mother always says she married my father because he had no balls.
I believe her. She wouldn't want balls in the house.
She hates games.
* * *
A dead man and woman and girl moved into our house a year ago.
They looked more or less regular except I couldn't see their feet and they had a habit of walking up walls. At the beginning of their stay, I used to turn my head to the side to imagine what it might be like living sideways.
The ghosts like rapping their knuckles against the underside of the floorboards, and leaving their breath on the bathroom mirrors.
Sometimes the appliances in our house go on the blink. The toaster will spit bread prematurely, or the gas stove will ignite whenever a plane flies over. When these things happen, I wonder if the other family is bored, or having a bad day.
I don't think the ghosts are related to each other but I like to think of them as a family.
I didn't talk to my mother about the ghosts. She hated hearing about my third eye and had started referring to it as my 'imagination'.
I didn't want to distract her anyway. She was about to have another baby. Her belly was swollen and ready to pop. I liked patting it and feeling the baby move inside.
My mother was sitting on the couch one day when I turned on the TV. A Japanese warrior was surrounded by enemies. He had his sword unsheathed and the veins on his neck bulged.
'Turn that off,' said my mother. 'No violence while I'm pregnant.'
'Why?' I asked.
'A mother needs to be calm during pregnancy. She has to look at flowers and beautiful things. A baby born to a woman who sees ugliness will be ugly. A woman who gazes on a face that is covered in moles will have a baby covered in moles. What you see is what you get.'
'If you look at ghosts, will your baby be a ghost?'
'I want you to be a nice, good girl,' said my mother. 'No more crazy talk.'
'What's wrong with questions?'
'The way you are is unnatural,' she said, resting her palms on her belly. 'I blame myself. I collected flowers from frangipani trees while you were in the womb. The fragrance got into your brain and twisted it.'
Our house had a spare room.
One morning, the week the baby was due, my father put on overalls and brought in a ladder, masking tape, newspaper and tins of paint.
As the sun set, he embraced my mother in that room, the walls newly blue.
He left a white cot in the corner and hung a parrot mobile above it. He filled a small chest of drawers with disposable nappies.
Stencilled white aeroplanes flew along the four walls, and a laughing clown popped out of a clock near the window to mark each hour.
The new baby never arrived.
What arrived instead was a pale version of my mother.
She had gone to hospital suddenly, and came back grey.
She lay in bed and I held her hand.
'Was it that bad movie we saw?' I said. 'Is that why the baby didn't come home?'
She closed her eyes, her hand limp in mine. My father picked me up by my armpits and set me down elsewhere.
'Watch some TV,' he said.
Soon, my mother felt ready to shower with me again.
She put on my shower cap, pink with blue daisies, letting the elastic snap into place on my hairline. Standing in the shower, our backs against the spray, my mother scrubbed me like we were under a steaming waterfall and I was her mud-caked village ox.
She didn't tell me to close my eyes to keep out the shampoo, like she used to. She didn't speak at all.
I spent the time looking down at the tiles and wondering why my mother had bruises all over her shins.
Blood swirled in the water splattering around my feet.
I didn't ask any questions.
We were clean and we were silent.
* * *
The Tattoo Man is telling me about black magic.
'A man who practises black magic can cast a spell that causes a pregnant woman to miscarry,' he says. 'The soul of the child then becomes his property.'
The Tattoo Man rolls a cigarette, lights it and offers it to me. I inhale and cough.
'In this way, a man can assemble a household of half-borns, who take on the appearance of lizards. Under his control, they are forced to creep into the houses of others and steal. If they fail to return, he finds them and cuts their throats. When there is no money left to extract from the neighbourhood, he gathers his lizards and moves on.'
The Tattoo Man holds out his hand, and I give him the cigarette.
'Only those with special eyes can see these children. Go back and make friends with the half-born. Your house has trapped him.'
My mother is hanging out washing when I come home from my visit.
'You weren't at Mrs Nolan's,' says my mother, straightening out a skirt on the line. Her voice is thin and quiet. 'In fact, she says you haven't been visiting her for weeks. You've been going somewhere else every afternoon.'
'I've been talking to the Tattoo Man.'
'The one down the road.'
'That crazy Chinaman with the blue face who shouts at people on the street?'
'He's not crazy.'
'What have you been doing there?'
'Talking about magic.'
She takes me by the shoulders and shakes me. 'Has he fiddled with you?'
'Stay away from him. Mrs Nolan says he's just out of a mental home. I won't have a daughter of mine running wild around this neighbourhood. I don't want the neighbours thinking all Asians are the same.'
She lets go of me and picks up a dropped peg from the grass.
'Magic,' she mutters, shaking her head. 'Your imagination is getting away from you. You better catch it before I do. Because if I get my hands on it, I will strangle it.'
* * *
The lizard boy doesn't frighten me, even with those big saucer eyes.
He just follows me around the house like he always does.
I teach him things sometimes. I show him the video game I'm playing on our TV, where I'm a plumber dressed in red and white and I go around hitting my head against bricks and jumping on mushrooms.
'You could have been the green plumber,' I tell him.
'Who are you talking to?' asks my sister.
At bedtime every night, I carry the lizard boy to the cot in the blue room where no one goes anymore.
I tuck him in and tell him everything's going to be all right.
* * *
My mother is shouting.
My father stands in the blue room with her, saying: 'It's just a lizard.'
'Don't hurt him,' I plead from the doorway.
'Is this another special friend?' says my mother.
'Well, it's not welcome in this house, do you hear?' says my mother. 'Men with tattoos! Ladies with bells! Lizards in cots!'
One hand is on her hip and the other against her forehead.
'It's not your fault about the baby,' I say. 'It was black magic.'
My father looks at me. 'Take this lizard out.'
I pick up my friend and leave. I stand outside the room and watch my parents.
My father is trying to hug my mother.
'I'm fine,' she says. 'Don't touch me.'
She pushes her wrists hard against his chest and says nothing more.
* * *
My mother's bruises are getting worse.
The lizard boy is the cause of it. He clutches her legs as she does the housework. She wipes down the kitchen sink, sweeps the floor and dusts the curtain rails, and all the while he digs deeper into the skin around her ankles.
'What bruises?' she says when I point them out. 'I don't see any bruises.'
'Yeah, what bruises?' echoes my sister.
I introduce the lizard boy to the other ghosts in the house.
He can't walk up walls with them but they wave to him and smile from their sideways world.
Yet despite his new family, he still won't let go of my mother.
My family is sitting around the dinner table, eating.
'I saw a dress I want,' says my sister.
'Toilet paper is getting too expensive,' says my mother.
'The price of water is going up,' says my father.
'I don't want to do any homework,' says my sister.
'It's time to prune the mango tree,' says my mother.
'The apples I bought are going soft,' says my father, 'why isn't anyone eating them?'
In the same room are the ghosts, sitting at a table on the wall.
They copy everything my family says.
The girl talks of dresses and homework. The woman talks of toilet paper and pruning. The man talks of water and bad apples.
The woman is adamant about cutting that mango tree down to size, as if she really can do it.
'There's another family in the house,' I say. 'They're sitting on the wall having dinner.'
My family slices its steamed fish and crunches its broccoli and says nothing.
The lizard boy crouches under the table, clutching my mother's ankle.
I save part of my dinner and leave it on the floor of my bedroom for the boy.
I don't know how else to help him.
My mother discovers me doing this. 'What's going on here?'
'It's for a cat.'
'How does it get into your bedroom?'
'I leave my window open.'
'Whose cat is it?'
'Is it really a cat or is it another imaginary friend?'
'Yes, it's a cat. It's orange. And I don't have any friends.'
My mother folds her arms. 'I haven't seen a cat around.'
'Here, it scratched the windowsill.' I point to needle marks I once made when I was bored with backstitch.
'Don't feed cats or they'll keep coming back.'
'But it's starving.'
'That cat is someone else's problem,' says my mother. 'If you help one, the hordes will come.'
'What about cats that don't belong to anyone?'
'That's their bad luck,' says my mother.
The lizard boy lets go of my mother's legs.
He crouches in the cupboard under the stairs and won't come out.
Excerpted from Portable Curiosities by Julie Koh. Copyright © 2016 Julie Koh. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Fantastic Breasts,
The Three-Dimensional Yellow Man,
Slow Death in Cat Cafe,
Inquiry Regarding the Recent Goings-On in the Woods,
The Sister Company,
The Fat Girl in History,